02-19-2017  8:03 pm      •     

ALBANY, N.Y. — The tea party movement was born in anger over the recession and the Obama administration's bailouts, and built largely on a platform of lower taxes and smaller government. But some of its candidates are getting tripped up on social issues.
In New York, Carl Paladino, the tea party-backed Republican candidate for governor, caused a furor among Democrats when he said over the weekend that children shouldn't be "brainwashed" into thinking homosexuality is acceptable.
In Colorado, GOP Senate nominee Ken Buck has tried to deflect questions about his stance against abortion rights. In Delaware, Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell has come under fire over the conservative religious views she espoused as a TV commentator, including preaching against the evils of masturbation.
And in Nevada, Senate candidate Sharron Angle, a Southern Baptist, has called herself a faith-based politician. She opposes abortion in all circumstances, including rape and incest, and doesn't believe the Constitution requires the separation of church and state. Her opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, seeks to portray her as outside mainstream America.
One by one, tea party challengers have veered away from the issues of taxes and spending — or in some cases were pushed off message, either by the media or by the Democrats, who have tried to portray the insurgents not as populist alternatives to the mainstream GOP but as Republican regulars.
"It is clear that the Democrats and many of their allies in the media will attack the Republicans for being 'too extreme,'" William Mayer, an associate professor of political science at Northeastern University, wrote in a position paper this month.
Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said his research shows tea party activists are overwhelmingly conservative Republicans. Rather than an outside alternative to the GOP, he said, the tea party is a movement from within the Republican Party's most active members.
"My feeling has been that social issues were always an important component of the tea party movement all along," Abramowitz said.
He said candidates have been questioned on their social views by reporters and by Democrats more now that they emerged as GOP nominees: "There's more attention to it now, now that they are actually running their general election campaigns."
Some tea party candidates are trying to moderate their social views or deflect attention from them back to the economy.
In Denver, Buck is challenging first-term Sen. Michael Bennet and opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest. He endorsed a state constitutional amendment that would give fetuses constitutional rights, then withdrew his support after doctors and lawyers pointed out it would also ban some types of fertility treatments and emergency contraception.
"Democrats see this as an opportunity to discredit Ken Buck, but I think most people are smart enough to know one person isn't going to be able to do away with Roe v. Wade," said Bobbie Chiles, president of the South Platte Republican Women's Club.
In Kentucky, tea party Republican Rand Paul, a candidate for Senate, opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and a proposed mosque near ground zero in New York City. But he doesn't talk about it much.
"I say the top three issues of the tea party movement are the debt, the debt and the debt," Paul said in a recent campaign stop to a group dedicated to smaller government.
But in May, just hours after the political novice won a landslide primary victory, he took heat for a rambling interview in which he expressed misgivings about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and appeared to suggest that businesses be allowed to deny service to blacks without fear of federal interference.
Paul scrambled for damage control, issuing a statement saying, "I believe we should work to end all racism in American society and staunchly defend the inherent rights of every person."
In Alaska, tea party candidate Joe Miller says he is "unequivocally pro-life," and also opposes hate crime laws as violations of free-speech and equal protection under the Constitution.
In New York, Paladino spent Monday's Columbus Day Parade, a staple for politicians seeking votes in New York City, fending off a stream of criticism from Democrats for his comments the night before to a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders.
"That's not how God created us," Paladino said Sunday of homosexuality, "and that's not the example that we should be showing our children."
He added that children who later in life choose to marry people of the opposite sex and raise families would be "much better off and much more successful."
"I don't want them to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option," he said.
Paladino's Democratic opponent for governor, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, called Paladino's comments "reckless and divisive ... (the) worst cynical politics," especially since they come as New York City police investigate reports that three men were tortured in a night of anti-gay bias in the Bronx.
"It is repugnant to the concept of what New York is," Cuomo said Monday at the parade. "We celebrate our diversity."
State Sen. Thomas Duane, an openly gay Democrat, said he was "enraged" by Paladino's "despicable rhetoric, which does cause people to hate themselves and commit suicide."
Paladino, who trails Cuomo by double digits in the polls, insisted his opposition to gay marriage and "brainwashing" in schools about gay life is a view held by millions of New Yorkers.
"I unequivocally support gay rights, unequivocally," Paladino said during the parade. He noted that he has a gay nephew who works for his campaign.
"The one thing that I don't (support) is marriage. I'm a Catholic," Paladino said. "I believe in the Catholic position on it and if Andrew doesn't like it, he should go see a priest."
Cuomo is also Roman Catholic.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Kristen Wyatt in Denver; Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, and Marcus Franklin in New York City.

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All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. "I can't believe there's actually a politician doing what he says he would do," says an approving Scott Hiltgen, a 66-year-old office furniture sales broker from River Falls, Wisconsin. "That never happens." Disrupt Trump has. But there may be more sound and fury than substance to many of his early actions. Trump did select Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a nomination that has drawn strong reviews from conservatives. But the president is regrouping on immigration after federal judges blocked his order to suspend the United States' refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which had caused chaos for travelers around the globe. Some other orders on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall and former President Barack Obama's health care law are of limited effect. Trump says his early actions show he means to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. 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Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. 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