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Paul was hesitant Wednesday to comment on the new caucus. But Lee said the aim of the group is to provide a “conduit” for information between tea party activists and his fellow Republican Senators. Lee won last year after three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett failed to make it past the Utah GOP state convention and onto the primary ballot. He was targeted by tea party activists and other groups who charged he had not been fiscally conservative enough.
“We don’t purport to speak for the tea party. It remains an organic, grass-roots movement, a political phenomenon more than anything, and it will remain such under this,” Lee said.
Conservative tea party activists played somewhat of an influential role in several competitive GOP Senate primaries, and the tea-party-backed nominees had mixed success in November. Among those who were victorious were GOP Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.), in addition to Lee and Paul. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) was also endorsed by DeMint in his competitive primary, and the South Carolinian traveled to Kansas to campaign for him.
But that hasn’t translated into Tea Party Caucus membership, at least not yet.
Moran said Wednesday that he has been focused on getting his office up and running and has “no particular thoughts at the moment” on the matter, while Toomey said he is looking forward to learning more about it. Johnson, however, has made a conscious decision not to join, and he did not shy away from discussing his reasons.
“I sprang from the Tea Party and have great respect for what it represents. The reason I ran for the U.S. Senate was to not only stop [President Barack Obama’s] agenda but reverse it. I believe our best chance of doing that is to work towards a unified Republican Conference so that’s where I will put my energy,” Johnson said in a statement provided to Roll Call.
Rubio, meanwhile, said he remains on the fence.
“We do have something called the conservative steering committee, it’s been there for a while, run by Jim DeMint. ... I’m going to be joining that,” he told the Shark Tank, a Florida political website. “But what I’m kind of curious to figure out in consultation with these other Senators who are involved in the tea party caucus [is] ‘Why do we need something in addition to the steering committee?’”
Separate caucuses, although common in the House, are rare in the Senate, and the Republican Conference leadership tends to be cautious of political sub-groups that could vie for influence among the rank and file. But in the case of the Tea Party Caucus, leaders have declined to express concern, and in fact, they might not have any.
Two senior Republican Senate aides connected to the leadership team agreed that the group could be helpful, while noting that GOP Senators share the core beliefs of the tea party movement.
“Our opinion is that any outreach from Republican Senators to any group of American voters is a plus for all Republicans in Congress,” one of the aides said.