JEFFERSON CITY — It's happened in other states. Conservative Republican candidates appealing to tea party activists have defeated party-establishment candidates. But can it happen in Missouri?
State Sen. Chuck Purgason believes it can. Yet so far, there is little evidence to suggest it will.
Purgason, a Republican state lawmaker from southern Missouri, is the best-known of the eight lesser-known candidates running against the party establishment pick, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, in the Aug. 3 Republican primary for U.S. Senate.
Purgason seems to be a favorite among participants in the tea party, the populist movement against the Washington political establishment, big government and big spending.
Yet unlike tea party favorites in some other states, Purgason has struggled to attract money or big-name endorsements. He had $148 in his campaign account at the start of July, having spent most of the $32,300 he had raised. His biggest endorsement: the Ohio man known as "Joe the Plumber," who gained a moment of fame during the 2008 presidential campaign when he questioned then-Sen. Barack Obama about his economic policies.
By contrast, Blunt had $4.5 million in his campaign account, having raised $2.2 million in just the past three months. And Blunt has the support of almost every prominent Republican in Missouri, including the man he is hoping to replace — retiring Sen. Kit Bond.
In states where tea-party-type candidates have been successful, they typically have had enough money to get their message out to the masses, or prominent supporters that helped garner attention.
In Kentucky, tea party favorite Rand Paul inherited strong name recognition from his father, Ron Paul, a Texas congressman who was a Republican presidential candidate in 2008. A month before defeating Secretary of State Trey Grayson in Kentucky's Republican U.S. Senate primary, Rand Paul already had raised about $2.4 million. And Paul had endorsements from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes and Christian evangelical leader James Dobson.
In Nevada, former state lawmaker Sharron Angle — who said of herself, "I am the tea party" — emerged the winner from a crowded Republican U.S. Senate primary that included a former college basketball star, a Wall Street banker and a former state senator who had been the front-runner. But Angle did not run a merely word-of-mouth campaign among tea party activists. Several weeks before the primary, she already had raised $1.2 million.
In South Carolina, another tea party favorite — state Rep. Nikki Haley — ranked last in campaign cash among four Republican gubernatorial candidates just a couple weeks before the primary. Yet her $387,348 bank account still put her within striking distance. And Haley gained plenty of free media attention from a Palin endorsement and unsubstantiated claims of infidelity, which she forcefully denied. Haley ultimately won a June 22 Republican runoff over U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett.
If Purgason is to make a move in Missouri's U.S. Senate race, now is the time.
Purgason was on TV newscasts, websites and newspapers across the state last week for leading a more than 20-hour filibuster against tax breaks for Ford Motor Co. and other automobile manufacturers.
The bill passed anyway and was signed into law. But Purgason was able to take a populist stand for free-market principles and against special tax breaks for big businesses. He said he received about 450 e-mails, mostly from people supporting his cause.
Yet barring a windfall of campaign cash, Purgason doesn't appear capable of capitalizing on last week's publicity by running any television ads. By contrast, Blunt has been airing TV advertisements for a couple weeks.
Purgason remains optimistic that a face-to-face campaign and a network of tea party activists can propel him to an upset victory.
"Imagine what kind of example that will put out, if you're able to win a primary with very little money, because of the delusion that people have that money means victory," Purgason said.
The tea party movement has exposed cracks in the Republican Party, said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University. And Purgason could take advantage of that.
"Will he fare better than people would have predicted x-number of months ago? I think absolutely. He's going to show that the tea party movement has teeth or traction," Connor said.
Yet for whatever cracks may exist, Missouri still has fairly sturdy Republican establishment, Connor added.
So can Purgason win?
"No," Connor said. "I don't think there's any chance that he can ride the tea party movement" to victory.
Editor's note: David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995.