Tea Party-Backed Repeal Of The 17th Amendment Gets Republicans Into Trouble

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There are signs that tea party calls to repeal the 17th Amendment — taking the selection of U.S. Senators out of the hands of voters and putting it in the hands of state governments — are proving to be a bridge too far for Republican candidates desperate to steal some of the movement’s mojo. In the past couple weeks, at least two mainstream Republican candidates have found themselves walking back from pledges to support repealing the amendment, suggesting there’s a limit to how much support the tea parties can provide.

The “Repeal The 17th” movement is a vocal part of the overall tea party structure. Supporters of the plan say that ending the public vote for Senators would give the states more power to protect their own interests in Washington (and of course, give all of us “more liberty” in the process.) As their process of “vetting” candidates, some tea party groups have required candidates to weigh in on the idea of repeal in questionnaires. And that’s where the trouble starts.

In Ohio, Steve Stivers — the Republican attempting to unseat Democratic Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy in the state’s 15th District — came under fire from Democrats when it was revealed he had checked the box saying he would repeal the 17th Amendment on a tea party survey (see question 11 here).

Kilroy’s campaign set up a website slamming Stivers for the stance, and attacked him in the press.

Stivers flip-flopped almost immediately, telling the Columbus Dispatch that despite the survey (and a January quote in The Hill), he didn’t know what he was saying when he called for an end to Senators elected directly by the people they represent.

“I made a mistake,” Stivers told the paper. “I answered that question wrong. It was not intentional.”

In Idaho, Republican Vaughn Ward is in a similar pickle. Ward, the NRCC’s choice to challenge Rep. Walt Minnick (D), is currently locked in a primary fight with state Rep. Raul Labrador. As happens so often in Republican primaries these days, the candidates are doing their best to appeal to the ultra-conservative vote. (And considering that Minnick is the lone Democrat to be called a Hero by the Tea Party Express, we’re talking extra tasty crispy conservative here.)

On April 30, Ward told a TV audience in Boise that he, like Labrador, favored repealing the 17th Amendment. But after the issue drew some heat in the press, Ward thought better of the idea and changed his tune.

“I do not want to take away the power of people to elect senators,” Ward told the Spokesman-Review newspaper. “What I do support is amending the Constitution and adding a two-term limit for U.S. senators.”

Ward said “I’m not changing position, I’m clarifying,” but reporters in Idaho called it like it was. One columnist put it this way: “Um, no.”

Tea Party Boise President Brendan Smythe told me Ward’s new take on the 17th Amendment is a “massive flip-flop.” He said that Ward’s change of heart “means a lot to us” and could have an effect on Ward’s chances in Idaho’s May 25 primary.

“It sounds to me like he’s answering to the GOP machine,” Smythe said. He said that most establishment Republicans in Idaho don’t support repealing the amendment and he speculated that they may have influenced Ward’s decision to change his mind on the issue.

“He probably got some advice from the incumbents,” Smythe told me. “[Ward’s reversal] is typical party before country behavior. That’s all it is.”

There are, of course, plenty of conservative Republicans who favor repealing the 17th Amendment. Tim Bridgewater, the man who got the most votes at the Utah GOP convention that ousted Sen. Bob Bennett, says on his website that he’d support rewriting the constitution to put the power of choosing Senators in the hands of the states. And Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) has actually put forward legislation that would repeal the amendment.

For their part, some long-time proponents of repealing the amendment say that they wish it wasn’t associated with today’s far-right. John W. Truslow, III
, who heads up the non-partisan Campaign To Restore Federalism
said that the fact that the tea party has taken up the cause could do more harm than good. He said that repealing the 17th Amendment has long been a cause of those who want the federal government’s power over the states to be limited — which often means supporters of the ideology currently not in power in Washington. In the case of the tea party though, Truslow said what he called the group’s inevitable decline could take repeal of the 17th Amendment with it.

“I wish it was more than the tea partiers who were talking about it,” he told me today. “I’m worried that the idea will get so tied to the tea partiers that as the tea party gets discredited the idea will get discredited too.”

Some Republican candidates seem to feel the same way about their own credibility. Their brief flirtation with the repealing the 17th Amendment — which appears to have been born out of trying to curry favor with the the tea parties — ended after it threatened to make them look too extreme.

Late Update: Shortly after this post was published yesterday, Tea Party Boise endorsed Raul Labrador in the Idaho Congressional race. According to KTVB-TV, the tea party group chose Labrador because, among other things, he’s “more thoughtful and knowledgeable” than Vaughn Ward.

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