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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Ali Watkins, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — As Democrats fight desperately to keep a Senate majority in the upcoming elections, one conservative voice has been noticeably muted in the fight for seats: a cohesive far-right tea party.

It’s been four years since the group made its sensational entrance onto the national stage, prompting a swell of support that swept names like Florida’s Marco Rubio, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, and Texas’ Ted Cruz into Washington. Touting a general distaste for government and a focused disgust for Democrats, the movement helped oust a host of more traditional incumbents.

But according to recent Gallup polls, the number of Republicans who consider themselves supporters of the tea party has steadily dropped since the movement’s peak in 2010, down from 61 percent to 41 percent. With its heyday behind it, the tea party of 2014 looks less like a movement and more like a fractured, disconnected offensive, doomed by hyperlocal ties that make national impact a challenge.

“There’s no single tea party organization, most of which don’t have a whole lot of money,” said Robert Boatright, a political science professor and an expert in congressional primaries at Clark University in Massachusetts. “If candidates wish to refer to themselves as a tea party candidate, there’s not really anybody to say no.”

That lack of cohesive voice has already led to losses in the 2014 midterm primaries, in which tea party challengers failed miserably to upset incumbents with national GOP backing.

South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, easily avoided a runoff and walked away with the state’s Republican nomination this year, despite being considered one of this cycle’s more vulnerable incumbents. When all was said and done, though, he had less than 60 percent of the votes.

“That’s no overwhelming landslide. It shows that there’s still some resentment out there,” said David Woodard, a political science professor at South Carolina’s Clemson University.

But that resentment was spread among six different tea party challengers, a fracture that Woodard says speaks to the group’s now exploited weaknesses.

“They each had a geographic support, and what happened is, there was nobody to sort of pull them all together,” he said.

Graham’s South Carolina is a useful example when considering the tea party’s life span, a deep red, conservative microcosm that has hosted various tea party dramas since the group found a foothold in 2010. For years, Graham has had to fend off attacks from the far right, which says he isn’t conservative enough. Some of his delegation colleagues, meanwhile, have attempted a delicate balance: beckoning tea party support with one hand while holding them at arm’s length with the other.

The House elections of 2010 saw several amateur Republicans in South Carolina knock longtime institutional politicians out of office. Reps. Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney, Jeff Duncan, and Tim Scott, now a senator, all rode the swell into office.

It’s difficult to nail down exactly where the four stand now on the tea party. Mulvaney, Duncan and Scott were reportedly all associated with Congress’ Tea Party Caucus at some point, although it appears the caucus, headed by Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann, is not as organized as it was during its inaugural run in 2010. Bachmann’s spokesman, Dan Kotman, said the group is still holding meetings but does not maintain an official membership list.

This reluctance to publicly associate with the movement reflects a trend found in the tea party’s tidal wave aftermath: Many lawmakers didn’t so much help build the wave as hitch its ride to Washington.

AFP Photo/Andrew Burton

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Democratic nominee Joe Biden

If you were a Trump supporter anticipating a ruinous assault on Joe Biden's integrity during that final debate, too bad. What you got instead was a series of incomprehensible outbursts from Donald Trump, who seems to assume that everybody believes whatever nonsense they hear on Fox News, just like he does.

The day after the debate was even more disappointing. The Wall Street Journal, owned by Fox News chairman Rupert Murdoch himself, dropped a front-page investigative report that directly contradicted Trump's accusations about Biden and China. The only candidate with unseemly business over there is Trump himself, whose secret account in a Chinese bank was just exposed.

For months, Trump and his minions have hyped allegations of financial corruption against Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Trump got himself impeached, with the help of legal genius Rudy Giuliani, over his attempt to force Ukraine's president to open a fake corruption probe of the former vice president and Burisma, the energy firm that once employed Biden's son Hunter. Their deception collapsed when Trump and Obama administration officials testified – with ample documentary evidence – that Biden had done nothing to protect Burisma and only carried out United States and European initiatives against corruption in Ukraine.

But that failure didn't discourage Giuliani, former Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon, or the other fabricators in the Trump entourage. In recent days, they have unveiled a mysterious laptop computer that purportedly belonged to Hunter Biden and reached Giuliani and then the New York Post through a series of implausible events. There are clues that the electronic data on the laptop was invented or altered. Who might do that? Let's see: The Kremlin is seeking to harm Biden politically, and Giuliani has openly welcomed the assistance of Russian intelligence assets, so the answer is fairly obvious. Especially because Russian agents provided similar services for the Republican candidate four years ago.

When the laptop gambit flopped, the Trumpsters still didn't give up.

On the eve of the debate, a Wall Street Journal columnist published a claim that Joe Biden personally profited from investments in China fronted by Hunter. Her column was based on assertions by a shadowy but euphoniously named businessman, a certain Tony Bobulinski. In a move worthy of that old pardoned felon Roger Stone, Bobulinski actually attended the Nashville debate (after staging a "press availability" where he refused to answer any questions.)

Unfortunately for both Bobulinski and that eager Journal columnist, her newspaper on Friday published the investigation that cratered their nefarious tale. After months of actual reporting, the Journal's real journalists found that the venture cited by Bobulinski "never received proposed funds from the Chinese company or completed any deals." Moreover, corporate records reviewed by the Journal's reporters "show no role for Joe Biden."

So far the Biden "scandal" most closely resembles Whitewater and the entire panoply of Clinton finance scandals that never revealed any wrongdoing whatsoever. Whatever Trump may spew and sputter, there is no plausible evidence that has been subjected to examination by journalists of integrity.

And fortunately for Biden, the nation's traditional news outlets are approaching the allegations against him with a cool and appropriate skepticism. That wasn't the case in 2016, the last time Steve Bannon played the same games. For Bannon and Giuliani, as well as their echoes across right-wing media, the objective was always to launch their false narratives into the mainstream. They succeeded brilliantly in 2016, with the assistance of the New York Times and other news organizations that should have known better and done better. This time they are failing.

In promoting these serial smears, the risk for Donald Trump is always that someone competent will inspect his record. That's what should have happened four years ago, when he and Bannon falsely attacked the Clinton Foundation while concealing the sordid truth about the Trump Foundation, a brazen criminal enterprise.

That 2016 frameup was a classic instance of projection – and we can assume the same dynamic is at work today. So now is the time to scrutinize all of the Trump Organization's crooked, conflicted deals overseas – and how he and his family have profited from his presidency.