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“It’s something we’re doing to poke fun at her,” Ms. Martin, a “tea party” activist, says of Arkansas’s senior senator, Democrat Blanche Lincoln. “Blanche likes to use her femininity in defense of what she does. We’re feminine conservative girls; she doesn’t represent us.”
With Senator Lincoln up for reelection in November – and besieged on many sides for, among other things, her hesitant support for national healthcare reform – the contest here will test not only the clout of the energetic but unfocused tea party movement but also how effectively the Republican establishment taps it.
So far, the desire to oust Lincoln appears to be uniting tea party and Republican forces here. If that pattern holds, Arkansas could become the altar for a pivotal political marriage that refashions conservatism in America.
But it may also prove to be the exception rather than the rule. Elsewhere, tea party activists and the Republican old guard have clashed. In Florida, for one, tea partyers recently helped oust the Republican Party state chairman, and the two sides back different GOP candidates for the open US Senate seat there
Moreover, though the two enjoy jolly relations in Arkansas now, anything could happen by the November election, and state conservatives have a lot of sorting out to do if they are to unseat Lincoln.
No fewer than nine candidates have so far thrown their hats into the Republican ring. Two, businessman Tom Cox, and University of Arkansas official Randy Alexander, have tea party credentials, but tea partyers say members are still weighing their choices. The National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington, for its part, has not endorsed a candidate.
But in a state where the Republican Party lacks strong leadership, the energy is with the tea partyers. That’s as clear to conservative activist John Allison as the nose on his face.
“We are aggressively pursuing Blanche Lincoln to get her out of office, and that is our common goal” with the GOP, says the tea party member from rural Arkansas. “The most effective thing is to move into the Republican Party instead of splitting a conservative vote. We need to get involved with them and guide them back.”
The Arkansas Republican Party is taking care to extend its hand to tea party activists. Doyle Webb, state GOP chairman, notes that one Republican county chairman is also a tea party chair.
“In our leadership and private meetings,” he says in a phone interview, “we have all agreed to be encouragers and accepting. We want the party to bring in those differences.... The tea party brings a more activist wing into an older GOP, which is in turn exciting and activating the lumbering elephant.”
Martin, with “Bye Bye Blanche,” is Exhibit A. Though a regular voter over the years, Martin never got involved in party politics until last fall, when she started attending healthcare town-hall meetings. By December, she was standing in front of 500 people at a tea party holiday bash in a Little Rock hotel, announcing the Facebook group
The grass-roots buzz at that event was reminiscent of the early Obama-for-president movement. Pamphlets about how to run for office dotted a table in the room. Volunteers circulated with sign-in sheets to gather contact information. Donations were collected at the door.
Only a few of the local GOP establishment attended, but from out of town came Richard Armey, former GOP House majority leader, whose group, Freedomworks, leads the national tea party charge.
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