Republicans emboldened by the unpopularity of the Democratic heath care reform bills are finding themselves having to balance the enthusiasm of the far right against the uneasiness of independents, a group they need to court to have any hope of retaking Congress.
The GOP has spent the past year trying to carefully craft messages on the stimulus, the budget, energy and health care reform that appeal to its base as well as independent voters.
But the excitement of the Tea Party protest movement thrust the Republican agenda into the headlines and suddenly put party leadership on center stage.
The movement also helped the GOP make the August recess particularly uncomfortable for Democrats.
Midterm elections are about voter intensity, and right now, the Republican message of fiscal responsibility and pro-growth policies is resonating not only amongst conservatives, but also with independent voters, said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
However, the anti-Democrat fervor generated by the right has, at times, spilled over into dicey territory.
Over the August recess, dozens of protesters were photographed carrying signs that likened President Barack Obama and members of Democratic leadership to Adolf Hitler, and YouTube was awash with clips of Members of Congress being shouted down or chased by angry demonstrators.
Republicans acknowledge they have a challenge of trying to tap into the energy of their angry base without turning off moderate and independent voters.
Former Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), CEO of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership, said the party has a balancing act in dealing with the growing influence of the Tea Party movement.
Davis said Republicans should embrace them, up to a point.
You let them on the boat, but you dont let them drive it, Davis said. You need that energy, but it cant be the face of the party or you are going to turn off independents.
Davis said the GOP needs to focus on recruiting more moderate Republicans to broaden its base, and try to steer clear of polarizing social issues such as immigration.
What they have to do is win races in different geographical areas, and they cant do it with the same kind of people who win in Texas and South Carolina, Davis said. There are plenty of people in the Northeast, Midwest, Colorado, who are very upset with whats going on. Youve got to run Republicans who fit the mold there.
Davis said many independents are inclined to send a message to Obama and vote Republican next year.
Republicans dont need to worry about energizing their base, Davis said. Obama, Pelosi and Reid are doing that for them.
You want to make it a coalition, he said. The base can take care of itself.
One GOP strategist said the tenor of the debate thus far has swung in favor of Republicans.
Republicans are benefitting from an environment where issues like health care are not only generating excitement amongst base voters, but also driving independents away from Democrats as well, this strategist said. This is clearly of great benefit, but it also requires party and message discipline.
Several Republicans rejected the idea that an overzealous base would scare skittish middle-of-the-road voters.