Strange New Respect Emerging for Tea Party Movement?

Monica Davey lays out the Tea Party/conservative case against Mark Kirk, a moderate Republican Senate candidate in Illinois. Will the movement's assumed threat to establishment Republicans suddenly make the "angry," fringe" Tea Party movement respectable?

Monica Davey's front-page story Tuesday from Chicago, "Massachusetts Victory Buoys Republican Hopes in Illinois," while providing evidence of optimism among Ill. Republicans, still devoted five of 28 paragraphs to how the Tea Party movement doesn't like front-running Republican candidate Mark Kirk, a five-term representative. Kirk, a supporter of abortion rights, is evidently too moderate to win strong movement support. But since when has the Times cared so much what the "angry," "fringe" Tea Party movement thought?

Republicans in Illinois hold no statewide offices, are minorities in both chambers of the State Legislature and struggle some years to recruit viable candidates even at the top of the ballot.

But the election last week of a long-shot Republican, Scott Brown, to the Senate in Massachusetts, a similarly blue state, has invigorated Republicans here.

Next Tuesday's statewide primaries - the first in the nation this year - have suddenly turned into a pep rally for November and could provide a window into what is to come nationally as the 2010 primary season unfolds.

How things have changed since Scott Brown landed a haymaker against the Democratic establishment in Massachusetts. The Times, which for almost a year has characterized the Tea Party movement as "bitter," "fringe," and above all "angry," is suddenly treating them with a bit more respect.

Some argue that Mr. Kirk, as a five-term congressman and a moderate Republican with centrist-leaning views that have irked conservatives, may not benefit from voter unrest. (Democrats also have their eyes on his House district in Chicago's northern suburbs.)

"In a key way, Illinois is Massachusetts in reverse," said Kathleen Strand, a senior adviser to Illinois for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Here, the Republican candidate is the Washington insider that voters are angry at, not the Democrat."

In the view of some conservatives, Mr. Kirk, who supports abortion rights, fits right in with the Democratic candidates. They say that while he might gain unhappy Democratic voters and center-leaning independents, he will lose the votes of a different segment - some who consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement, abortion opponents and others.

Conservatives often cite Mr. Kirk's vote in favor of cap-and-trade legislation intended to reduce carbon emissions; he has since reversed course, criticizing the legislation and saying he would vote against it as a senator. They also do not appreciate what they see as his effort to swerve to the right; some mocked his campaign for trying to win supportive words from former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska when she was in Chicago recently.

"Mark Kirk has absolutely no Tea Party support," said Diane Benjamin, an organizer of a Tea Party group in McLean County, about 90 miles southwest of Chicago.

In the primary, there are several lesser-known candidates, including Patrick Hughes, who has drawn praise from some conservatives and Tea Party supporters (though not Ms. Benjamin).

What explains the Times sudden interest in what "tea partiers" and allied conservatives think? Some of it is doubtless explained by the results in Massachusetts showing a conservative backlash. But another motive may be afoot.

Current conventional media wisdom suggests a strong Tea Party movement could wreak havoc among moderate Republicans, splitting the party and stopping it from making anticipated gains in the House and Senate in 2010. Will the Tea Partiers continue to garner Strange New Respect from the Times in the run-up to the 2010 elections?