WASHINGTON—New Republican senators who sometimes breathed tea-party fire as candidates are adopting a more moderate tone as they enter Congress.
A few of the 11 incoming GOP senators — the number could reach 12 — may still opt to battle party leaders, as some tea party-backed House Republicans have done. Thus far, however, they seem willing to cool their earlier rhetoric and work with senior colleagues to push a conservative mainstream agenda while confronting President Barack Obama.
Some who took hard-right positions on reproductive rights, for instance, have de-emphasized or abandoned those stands. Some who picked early fights with party leaders have made peace as the GOP prepares to take control of the Senate in January.
They are “a great new bunch” who will help “make the place function again,” a beaming Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday as he welcomed the senators-elect to his Capitol office.
Few of the newcomers are drawing more attention than Joni Ernst, who won an open Iowa seat long held by Democrat Tom Harkin. Democrats say Ernst’s highly publicized TV ad, about castrating hogs, distracted voters from more troubling comments she made about guns, the United Nations and other topics. During the campaign, Ernst:
- Spoke of using her gun to defend herself “from a government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”
- Showed interest in “Agenda 21,” a conspiracy theory that, as she put it, involves the United Nations and the U.S. government “moving people off of their agricultural land and consolidating them into city centers, and then telling them that ‘You don’t have property rights anymore.'”
- Backed a “personhood amendment” that says full human and legal rights apply to a fertilized egg. Opponents say it would outlaw in vitro fertilization and some popular birth control methods.
Democrats complained Ernst used such stands to help secure the GOP nomination, and then turned the focus elsewhere during the general election. She downplayed some of the issues after the election. “I don’t think that the U.N. Agenda 21 is a threat to Iowa farmers,” she told Yahoo News.
Several new GOP senators managed to bridge their states’ gap between tea party conservatives and more mainstream, Chamber of Commerce Republicans. They include Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who ousted two-term Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, and North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, who defeated first-term Sen. Kay Hagan.
Tillis is popular with business groups but had to fend off a tea party leader and a prominent Christian conservative to win the Republican nomination. He did so largely by minimizing his differences with his primary opponents, boasting, “I led a conservative revolution in Raleigh.”
Democrats portrayed Cotton and Tillis as being too far right for their states. Those arguments failed. Because of how they campaigned, these new senators can plausibly and credibly lean hard right when it suits them, and toward the center at other times, depending on the issue.
The newcomers were tight-lipped during their orientation Wednesday, posing for photos like a wedding party in McConnell’s office, then scurrying to other meetings.
“No comment,” Cotton said when a reporter asked how Congress might oppose Obama’s forthcoming changes to immigration policy.
“I’m just happy to be with the new caucus,” was Tillis’ take on the day.
Three new senators will replace retiring Republicans: Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma, and David Perdue of Georgia.
The eight replacing Democrats are Ernst, Tillis and Cotton; Reps. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, and Steve Daines of Montana; former Gov. Mike Rounds of South Dakota; and former state official Dan Sullivan of Alaska.
A Dec. 6 runoff will decide Louisiana’s seat.
The new Republicans will clearly make the 100-member Senate more conservative, and put the GOP in control. But their arrival is unlikely to replicate the turmoil and rightward jolt that the 2010 tea party class of new Republicans brought to the House.
Several freshmen senators moderated their views during or after their campaigns. Gardner, for instance, dropped his support of a personhood amendment when he challenged Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.
Sasse, who briefly sparred with McConnell during the campaign, told The Associated Press that he and Ernst are “conservative in philosophy but prudent in temperament.”
“I’m not a bomb thrower,” Sasse said.
Meanwhile, the Democrats’ only new senator, Rep. Gary Peters of Michigan, got an early taste of life in the minority. As a crush of journalists jostled to see the new Republicans in McConnell’s ornate office, Peters wandered by, barely noticed.
A reporter helped him find his destination: the office of the Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, whose doorway sign soon will read “minority leader.”
From The Associated Press. AP writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, and Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report.