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Tea party's impact still unclear, S.D. officials say

The success of tea party candidates in several elections Tuesday could be "mixed news" for Republicans, Sen. Tim Johnson said Wednesday.

Johnson, D-S.D., said the tea party wins could mean the Republican Party will become "the party of the tea party." He discussed the election results and other issues during a teleconference with South Dakota journalists Wednesday.

Tea party candidates have claimed wins in Republican primaries in Nevada, Delaware, New York and elsewhere this election season.

Sen. John Thune said he doesn't worry that the tea party will seize control of the GOP. Thune said tea party candidates share many of the same goals and philosophies with mainstream Republicans.

They also share the same frustrations as most Republicans, he said.

"They don't think Washington has been listening and, frankly, they have good reason," Thune said.

Thune said he feels the Republican establishment will embrace tea party candidates and members as Election Day nears.

These new Republican candidates can help "put the brakes on the runaway train in Washington," he said.

The Delaware GOP and several national Republican officials have criticized Christine O'Donnell, a tea party-supported candidate who defeated Rep. Michael Castle in a Senate primary Tuesday.

Thune said he believes such wounds, inflicted in what he termed a "family" squabble, will heal. "I think they'll come around on that," he said.

Johnson said the "conventional wisdom" is that Republicans are more likely to gain control of the House than the Senate this fall. The Democrats may take their lumps for some of the proposals they have enacted, he said.

"No good deed goes unpunished in politics," Johnson said.

Thune said he thinks the Republicans face a tall order in gaining control of either house of Congress.

"You could see a possibility there, but it would take a pretty good wave," he said.

But he said a reduced Democratic majority in the House and Senate will force President Obama and Democratic leaders to negotiate more in the future.

Johnson said he feels that no matter which party assumes control of the Senate and House this fall, the people in the middle will hold the power.

"I hope moderates from both parties learn to live together," he said.

One candidate perceived by some as moderate is Rep. Stephanie Herseth, D-S.D., who Johnson said "has been good for South Dakota" and deserves to win another term in the House.

"I hope so," he said. "Stephanie deserves to be reelected. She's chosen a very moderate approach."

Johnson said while recent polls that show Herseth Sandlin with the lead are nice, "the only poll that counts is in November."

He admitted that he has disagreed with her over the years, chuckling when asked if she was "too moderate" for him at times.

"I have had differences with Stephanie," he said, but added that he "enthusiastically" supports her.

Josh Shields, campaign manager for Herseth Sandlin's Republican opponent, Kristi Noem, said Noem is sympathetic to many of the concerns tea partiers have.

"Kristi is extremely concerned about the fiscal situation the country is in and the massive debt and the spending," Shields said.

He said she is not a member of tea party groups in Sioux Falls or Rapid City, although she has attended meetings and spoken to the groups. They share a concern about fiscal issues, Shields said.

"She has been a small business owner, she has been a mom who clipped coupons and she has been a state legislator who passed a balanced budget," he said.

Noem has attended several tea party events in the state this year and has been invited to a Citizens for Liberty event in Rapid City Oct. 16. The rally sponsored by the tea partyaffiliated group will feature Ted Nugent, a musician, avid outdoorsman and conservative activist who has become a tea party favorite.

Shields, who was surprised to learn Noem's presence at the rally had been announced Wednesday, said while Noem has not agreed to attend, they are looking at her schedule and may do so.

Betsy Hart, Herseth Sandlin's campaign manager, noted that Noem has sought tea party support but won't identify herself as a member.

"Kristi Noem sought and accepted tea party endorsements, she attended tea party events and today, we hear that she has committed to a future tea party event," Hart said.

"However, like a typical politician, she still refuses to say whether or not she would join the House tea party caucus," she said. "Kristi Noem owes South Dakotans a straight answer about where she stands."