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Tea Party Candidates Become Factor in US Mid-Term Elections

Across the United States, the influence of the Tea Party movement is changing the way candidates are reaching out to voters ahead of the mid-term elections November 2. Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul in Kentucky, the son of one time presidential candidate Ron Paul and a Tea Party favorite, is tied in some polls with his Democratic rival Jack Conway.

Tea Party candidate Rand Paul talks to attendees of the 'Red, White and Blue Picnic' in Owensboro, Kentucky
Tea Party candidate Rand Paul talks to attendees of the 'Red, White and Blue Picnic' in Owensboro, Kentucky

At Reid's Orchard on the outskirts of Owensboro, the fire of a barbeque pit sends the smell of hamburgers and beans into the warm evening air of Western Kentucky.

Free food and conversation draws voters from across the political spectrum to an election year tradition in this part of the country… the Red, White and Blue Picnic.

"This is a way that we bring the candidates out and let them meet the people - good ol' fashioned political stump speeches. That is what we're all about," said Owensboro Chamber of Commerce President Jody Wassmer, one of the organizers of the event.

Candidates running for offices ranging from local commission seats to the governor of Kentucky use the Red White and Blue Picnic as a platform to deliver their message directly to voters who will determine the outcome of mid-term elections November 2.

Wassmer says Kentucky has traditionally voted for Democratic candidates.

"It's a very conservative, Democrat state, and the Republicans have made a lot of inroads here in recent years," he said.

One such Republican is Senate candidate Rand Paul. Paul defeated a popular candidate supported by the national Republican Party in Kentucky's primary elections in May, by tapping into voter anger over bank and auto industry bailouts, and an expansion of health care coverage.

He has the support of the Tea Party, which would like to see less government and lower taxes, something Paul supports.

"I think a country grows by getting government out of the way," he said. "Government isn't the solution; government needs to get out of the way to let private business thrive.  Private business and industry is the solution."

Paul's primary election victory in May, fueled by the endorsement of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, reinforced the power of the Tea Party movement.

Across the country, Tea Party supported Senate candidates such as Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Joe Miller in Alaska, and Sharon Engle in Nevada have changed the face of the Republican Party by defeating more mainstream candidates.

But their victories have also raised questions about whether or not their message appeals to a broader voter base in the general election.  

Democrats are also looking at some of these candidates as a liability to the Republicans in their effort to regain a majority in the House and Senate.

"While the Tea Party movement has, at this point, quite substantial disdain for the Democrats, it has almost equal disdain for the Republicans," said Doug Schoen, author of "Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking our Two-Party System."

Schoen says even though Tea Party voters generally do not support incumbents, regardless of party, he sees their influence helping the Republicans in November.

"I think it will be a pretty big victory this November and it is largely if not entirely being driven by the Tea Party movement, a movement that really 18, 19, 20 months ago, or certainly two years ago when President Obama was running, there was not a person in the world, certainly not in this town who was ever thinking that any movement like the Tea Party could come into existence, much less have the impact that it has," he said.

According to a September 10 CNN/Time magazine poll of registered voters in Kentucky, Rand Paul is tied with his Democratic rival Jack Conway.

Conway did not attend the Red White and Blue Picnic, but supporters campaigning on his behalf tried to paint Rand Paul as an extremist candidate unable to best represent Kentucky voters.

But Jody Wassmer thinks Paul's support of business in Western Kentucky, and his opposition to environmental legislation commonly referred to as "Cap and Trade," may give him the edge in this part of the country come November.

"This is coal country, and we have a lot of low cost coal powered plants, and 'cap and trade' is aimed squarely at those plants," he said. "Businesses that are struggling through this economy don't want to see their rates go up, that's an issue Rand Paul comes down very well on."

Conway and Paul have agreed to three debates throughout October, which will give each of the candidates a chance to further reach out to voters in the weeks leading up to the November election.

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