Could Democrats capture Tea Party fever?

This weekend’s results from Rasmussen on party identification raise an interesting question.  Can Democrats exploit Tea Party fervor to keep seats in Congress?  A.C. Kleinheider takes a look at Tennessee, where some of those battles will be fought in 2010:

Gov. Phil Bredesen was unique in his ability to out-Republican a GOP opponent and get away with it. Progressives are right when they say that there’s no point in trying to be Republican lite. Given the choice between a Democrat acting like a Republican and a real Republican, voters will choose the Republican. But that doesn’t mean that Democrats need to come at the electorate with a standard-issue liberal portfolio either.

This tea party movement, this seething anger, is being driven and co-opted by Republicans. But at its core, the outrage isn’t ideological. It isn’t even necessarily anti-government. It’s just anti-this-government.

Those caught up in tea party hysteria are the kind of voters Ross Perot captured in 1992. Two years later, without Perot, these foaming, vaguely culturally conservative, middle-income voters went Republican.

But these voters, unlike their tea party activist manipulators, don’t give a damn about Edmund Burke, Ludwig Von Mises or Ayn Rand. They want jobs and a government that makes sense to them — that’s it. As long as Democratic candidates don’t explicitly agitate their culturally conservative sensibilities and can deflect the appeals Republicans make on those hot-button social issues, these voters can be won over with economic arguments.

Jazz Shaw made a similar argument after seeing the Rasmussen numbers.  After all, while Democrats have dropped to their lowest level of partisan identification in years, Republicans don’t appear to be picking up significant converts, either.  The radical agenda of Nancy Pelosi has repelled voters, but Republicans have not yet taken advantage, probably due to a lack of a national platform.

However, I’d be highly skeptical of the notion that Democrats can capture Tea Party fever.  The Tea Party movement has come almost entirely as a reaction to the Pelosi agenda and the Obama attempt to force it through Congress.  Movement adherents may not dig von Mises or Burke, but they also know that higher taxes and larger government interventions have come from Democrats much more than Republicans.  The basic impulse of anti-incumbency hits Democrats more than Republicans, and especially Democratic leadership.  Given the supine nature of Blue Dogs in the House health-care vote in November, people understand that the corrective to the Pelosi agenda is not to send more Democrats to Congress.

The true impact of the Tea Party movement will be felt in Republican primaries more than general elections — and perhaps in Democratic primaries, although that seems less likely.  Conservatives will flood the zone looking for fiscal conservatives and smaller-government candidates, attempting to thwart the Pelosi-Reid-Obama agenda before it can get passed in Congress.  That explicitly relies on getting Nancy Pelosi out of the speaker’s chair, which means electing non-Democrats.  At least for now, that also means Republicans, but that doesn’t mean that the GOP can become complacent.  They need to focus like a laser on those issues that unite the Tea Party activists, Republican establishment, and independents disgusted with the excesses of one-party Democratic governance in Washington.  If they can do that, Republicans can recapture the House and put a big dent in the Democratic majority in the Senate.