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Tea Party: Return to basics or divisive force on right?

By Tom Cohen, CNN
The Tea Party has shaken up this year's congressional elections.
The Tea Party has shaken up this year's congressional elections.
  • Sunday talk shows offer varying views of Tea Party movement
  • Russo of Tea Party Express says no corporate contributions allowed
  • Durbin says Tea Party candidates give hope to Democrats in some races

Washington (CNN) -- Depending on who is talking, the Tea Party movement is either an extremist force dividing Republicans or a group of disgruntled taxpayers setting the government on a proper course.

The conservative political force has shaken up this year's congressional elections, backing candidates who defeated Republican incumbents and other mainstream GOP candidates in primaries across the country.

Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express -- the most organized and visible of the movement's factions -- told the CBS program "Face the Nation" that his group is a political action committee comprising members limited to donations of up to $5,000 with no corporate contributions allowed.

"We're the purest form of democracy, I think, in the Tea Party movement, in the sense that when we want to do something, we don't have any money to start with, we have to send an e-mail out to our people and say, 'Hey, we think Sharron Angle is going to be a great candidate in Nevada, and do you want to get behind her?' " Russo said Sunday.

The end result, he said, would be the election of candidates "willing to stand up for more responsible fiscal policy in Washington."

"We've turned the political system on its head," Russo said. "And what's done that is that millions of Americans, who, many of them, had been sitting out the political process, have gotten involved in the campaigns."

However, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, told CNN's "State of the Union" program that candidates such as Angle showed the negative impact of the Tea Party movement on the political right.

Republican primary victories by Tea Party-backed nominees over mainstream contenders such as Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and nine-term Delaware Rep. Mike Castle end up giving Democratic contenders a chance to win previously out-of-reach races in November, he said.

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"When the Tea Party becomes the gatekeeper of a Republican primary, we end up with contests we never dreamed of," Durbin said. "Who would have guessed that today we would be taking an honest look at Alaska, Delaware, and Kentucky, where we clearly have races where the Democrats can win?"

Durbin also cited Florida, where Republican Marco Rubio's Senate candidacy with Tea Party support caused Gov. Charlie Crist to wage an independent campaign, throwing the race into what Durbin called "turmoil."

"I think that shows the Tea Party position is too extreme for most voters, and I think we're going to do well in those states," Durbin said. "People have to ask themselves, is this what we really want in the United States Senate?"

Rubio, interviewed on the CBS program, said he and the Tea Party movement reflected the "sentiment in mainstream America that Washington is broken."

"We don't want to change America," he said in reference to President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign theme and agenda. "We want to fix things that are wrong in America."

He advocated bedrock conservative positions, including a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, banning congressional earmarks and imposing term limits on Congress members.

However, his stance was more moderate on an issue important to the crucial senior citizen population in Florida -- reforming Social Security to ensure its future solvency.

Rubio said benefits for current retirees or those close to retirement should remain fixed, and the system must survive for the younger and future generations without bankrupting the country.

"We're going to have to accept there are going to be some changes," he said, mentioning a possible future increase in the retirement age for eligibility.

Also on the program, another Tea Party-backed nominee -- Colorado Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck -- expressed similar conservative credentials.

"I see myself as part of a group of candidates who have been elected in this country because of frustration with what's happening in Washington, D.C.," Buck said.

"We're going there not to be part of the establishment, not to be part of what we consider the problem in Washington, D.C., but to get there and to reduce spending, to promote ideas like a balanced-budget amendment and term limits and ideas that have been talked about for a while," he said.

The Tea Party-backed candidates interviewed Sunday made no mention of the "Pledge to America" document released last week by House Republicans as a proposal for how they would govern if in power.

Democrats criticized the economic-focused program that includes reduced spending, lower taxes and other bedrock GOP positions as a rehash of failed past policies.

In an editorial Saturday, the New York Times called the document "a bid to co-opt the Tea Party by a Republican leadership that wants to sound insurrectionist but is the same old Washington elite."

"Not only are the players the same, the policies are the same," the editorial said. "Just more tax cuts for the rich and more deficit spending. We find it hard to believe that even the most disaffected voters will be taken in."

Conservative Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana told the NBC program "Meet the Press" that the "Pledge to America" represented a return to Republican roots.

"Republicans didn't just lose our majority in 2006, we lost our way," Pence said. "We walked away from the principles of fiscal discipline and reform that minted our governing majority back in 1980 and again in 1994. And the American people walked away from us."

Conceding that the proposals in the document are "not necessarily new," Pence said it represented a commitment to "important first steps in this Congress to steer our national government back to" basic principles and practices.