By STU WOO And JIM CARLTON
The raucous and costly Republican primary races in California and Nevada, like those in other states, attest to the tea-party movement’s rising influence. But Tuesday’s votes in the two states will be the first big test of the movement’s promise and limits—and offer clues to its nationwide strength this fall.
In Nevada, voters are poised to deliver an upset in the race for the GOP Senate nomination, as tea-party favorite Sharron Angle leads her establishment-supported rival in recent polls.
The pride of the California tea party, Chuck DeVore, has failed to catch fire in the Republican Senate race to challenge Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. On Tuesday, polls suggest he will finish well behind Carly Fiorina, a wealthy former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive endorsed by the GOP establishment.
The California and Nevada primaries illustrate a potential weakness of the tea-party movement: The bigger and more complex the stage, the more money and organization the movement needs. It has little of either now.
Tea-party activists, in their crusade to reduce government spending and taxation, have notched three victories so far this year. But all occurred in small-turnout, low-cost Senate races: a state-convention vote in Utah, a primary in Kentucky and a special election in Massachusetts, although other factors were also at play there. Nevada, with its population of 2.6 million, promises to provide the next victory in this category.
In California, with a population nearing 40 million, the movement has had trouble sustaining itself without adequate resources. That suggests some populist candidates may face challenges in the general election, which draws far more voters than primaries and requires more money for advertising.
“We are 14 months old as an organization,” said Steve Brandau, coordinator of the Central Valley Tea Party in California. “We’re not quite as effective as we want to be all over, but by the 2012 election we will be a force to contend with.”
Political experts say the tea party could still sway the California vote. The movement has already forced establishment candidates such as Ms. Fiorina to stake out more-conservative positions. And a populist candidate could yet win Tuesday if voter turnout is low and tea-party activists vote in disproportionately high numbers.
In Nevada, Ms. Angle garnered just 5% support in April polls. But with the backing of groups such as the Tea Party Express and anti-tax Club for Growth, she grabbed the lead by late May. The GOP governor, Jim Gibbons, is also surging on tea-party support, despite a series of ethics scandals that prompted many in the Republican establishment to abandon him.
By contrast, California’s Mr. DeVore seemed the perfect embodiment of the tea-party mantra. A state assemblyman known for his outspoken stance on limited government, he ran billboards depicting himself beside the U.S. Constitution and the motto “Support and Defend.”
Yet Mr. DeVore has consistently trailed Ms. Fiorina in polls. In recent weeks, she even picked up the support of voters who consider themselves tea-party members. This comes despite her more-liberal stances on issues such climate change.
Mr. DeVore, in an interview Friday, wasn’t ready to concede defeat. But he said the race shows the realities facing the movement in a state like California. “The issue is there are so many more of them in California,” he said of tea-party members, “and there is no central leadership like there would be in a smaller state. But it’s the nature of California, where one-eighth of the country lives and [which] is very diverse.”
Analysts credit Ms. Fiorina’s edge to her spending power. As of May 19, she had spent $6.7 million in her largely self-funded campaign, versus $2.1 million by Mr. DeVore and $1.7 million by Tom Campbell, an ex-congressman who is a social moderate.
But the state’s diversity has also been a factor, as has the movement’s fractiousness.
One DeVore-turned-Fiorina supporter is Mr. Brandau, of the Central Valley Tea Party. He switched allegiance because he felt she had a better chance of beating Ms. Boxer in the general election. One fellow tea-party member called him a sellout for doing so, but Mr. Brandau responded that Ms. Fiorina shares enough of his conservative ideals for him to support her.
“She hit it out of the park with us,” Mr. Brandau says, referring to Ms. Fiorina’s recent appearance at a Clovis, Calif., tea-party meeting.
Ms. Fiorina called the movement “incredibly important” after an appearance in Bakersfield Saturday. “You can’t be winning without that support from the tea party,” she said.
For California’s tea-party activists, the nation’s most-populous state presents unrivaled challenges. To reach 38 million residents, candidates there must have the money to buy television ads—they cost $3 million a week to run statewide—and enough organization to reach voters in all 58 counties.
“In some respects, the tea-party movement resembles the Christian right of the late 1980s and early 1990s—its clout was in inverse proportion to the size of the playing field,” says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.
The movement has influenced Ms. Fiorina and former eBay Inc. CEO Meg Whitman, who is aiming for the governor’s office, to stake out more-conservative positions. But both appear to have safe polling leads, with Ms. Whitman and Ms. Fiorina leading their closet opponents by 26 and 15 percentage points, respectively, in a Field Poll released during the weekend.
In the GOP gubernatorial primary, no tea-party contender has broken through. Analysts say even though Ms. Whitman and her opponent, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, are relatively moderate, the money spent between them—$105 million so far, much on TV ads—makes it impossible for a tea-party candidate without serious cash or statewide organization to gain traction.
One statewide tea-party candidate is faring somewhat better. John Eastman, the former law school dean at Orange County’s famously conservative Chapman University, has finished a close third in recent polls in the race for the Republican attorney general nomination. “If I win this thing Tuesday, you can attribute this to the tea-party people, absolutely,” he said. “I think they would be the margin of victory.”
—Tamara Audi and
John R. Emshwiller
contributed to this article.