NYT's Steinhauer: 'Incendiary' Tea Party Could Pay Dearly in 2012 Congressional Elections

Roving campaign reporter Jennifer Steinhauer was in Iowa and filed a piece for Friday's New York Times on the tight congressional race between conservative Rep. Steve King and Democrat Christie Vilsack, wife of Obama's Secretary of Agriculture: "In Iowa and Beyond, Redrawn Districts Test Favorites of Tea Party."

Steinhauer is the latest Times reporter to see a fading Tea Party hurt by "incendiary statements" and all but predicted "deep trouble" for several Tea party favorites among Republican candidates in next month's congressional elections. Steinhauer painted King as irritated and impatient during a debate, which the Times could well have done with President Obama but didn't.

Representative Steve King tapped his fingers impatiently against the lectern as his Democratic debate opponent, Christie Vilsack, lit into him about the House’s failure to take up a farm bill. “I have just one question for Congressman King,” Mrs. Vilsack said, as the Republican looked on with irritation. “Where is the farm bill?”

It was an uncommon moment for Mr. King, the Tea Party firebrand who for the last decade has threshed his opponents like a combine through corn. This time around, he is in the unfamiliar and highly uncomfortable position of defending his House seat against an aggressive, well-known Democrat with a lot of outside money supporting her bid.

Mr. King’s troubles underscore the liability of a national profile built largely on Tea Party credentials and incendiary statements -- his have included comparing illegal immigrants to domestic pets, defending dog fighting and likening Capitol Hill maintenance workers to “Stasi troops” after they were ordered to install new light bulbs -- as candidates in newly drawn districts face an electorate tired of empty political talk and stalemate.

Steinhauer's Rep. King timeline is dubious; King has been in Congress since 2003, while the Tea Party movement emerged in early 2009; "conservative firebrand" would be more accurate than "Tea Party firebrand." (Most accurate of all would be merely "Mr. King," but baby steps for the Times.)

Steinhauer spread bad news for the GOP.

Like Mr. King, Tea Party candidates across the country in districts with a mix of voters are finding a far less hospitable environment this time, especially in swing states. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is in a tight race with a deep-pocketed Democrat, though officials in both parties put her chances of returning to Washington as better than Mr. King’s. Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado and Representative Allen West of Florida are also facing head winds.

In states where the Democrats have a clear advantage in the presidential race, Tea Party-blessed incumbents like Representative Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, Representative Joe Walsh of Illinois and Representative Ann Marie Buerkle of New York are all in deep trouble.

“They are Tea Party stars,” said Representative Steve Israel of New York, who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “And their stars have faded.”

Steinhauer has previously accused Rep. Allen West of "incendiary remarks" and "hard-right" stands, and dramatically portrayed GOP House conservatives as standing "very much alone" on the fringe of American politics.