The west-metro suburbs have become a conservative testing ground in the fall campaign, now that fresh-faced Republican candidates backed by the Tea Party and Freedom Club knocked off a couple of established GOP legislators in last week's primary election.

But the outcome may be less the result of a radical GOP shift in the west suburbs than testimony to the power of the party's endorsement, which both challengers had won before claiming victory at the polls.

"The endorsement matters. If you're a Tea Party candidate and endorsed, then an incumbent legislator has a big problem," said Carleton College political science Prof. Steven Schier, adding that party backing has even more impact when voter turnout is low, as it was last week.

Cindy Pugh of Chanhassen, who helped launch the Southwest Metro Tea Party and cites U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann as a political inspiration, trounced longtime state Rep. Steve Smith of Mound in District 33B surrounding Lake Minnetonka.

In the GOP Senate District 33 primary, David Osmek, a health care project manager and Mound City Council member who benefited from outside spending by the Freedom Club and Americans for Prosperity, squeezed out a victory over Rep. Connie Doepke of Wayzata.

Schier said that while Osmek may have been more conservative than Doepke, he was no fringe candidate and enjoyed the backing of party leaders like U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen.

"Then Steve Smith had ethics problems, and he had voted against right-to-work and the gay marriage amendment," positions that upset a good portion of the party base, he said.

It wasn't a complete sweep for the challengers. Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen in neighboring District 34 handily defeated budget hawk Bruce Schwichtenberg, a Carver auto mechanic who has Tea Party ties.

He stopped her from winning party endorsement at the convention, which Ortman partly attributed to the fact that many Republicans confuse being angry with being conservative.

"I do have a very conservative record. I don't think anybody really disputes that. But I am willing to listen ... and find common ground," she said.

'A civil war'

Schwichtenberg said he ran because Republican legislators were failing to cut spending, and Ortman -- who chairs the Senate Taxes Committee -- is a prime example. "The only thing we can do is challenge her on that," he said.

Just before the primary, Schwichtenberg filed a complaint with the state charging Ortman with using campaign signs to imply she had party backing. An administrative law judge ruled last week that there were enough facts to prove that Ortman broke the law, and referred the case to a three-judge panel for final decision.

"If she has [Republican] on her signs and I don't, that's unfair," Schwichtenberg said.

Ortman said the signs said only that she was Republican, not that she had the party endorsement. "I believe strongly that that's protected political speech, and I think the court will find that, as well," she said.

Despite the intraparty dustups, many observers think the west-metro districts are so reliably GOP that it's unlikely party differences there will result in significant advantages for their DFL opponents.

State DFL Chair Ken Martin disgreed, saying that he thought GOP factions presented opportunities for DFLers. He said that the west-metro races were another sign that the Republican Party is in the middle of "a civil war."

"At the end of the day, it's going to be hard to get all Republican voters to coalesce around one candidate, and that's going to create openings for us," he said.

'Time for change'

Osmek said that his victory was an offshoot of the desire for change. Doepke, he said, had disillusioned Republicans by voting for the Vikings stadium, backing sales taxes on Internet purchases and supporting health care exchanges.

"People realized that the time is now for a change and for a strong conservative leader that has the pedigree, the background, in a different sense," he said.

Doepke said her defeat came out of the coffers of deep-pocket conservative organizations that she said fired a series of highly charged ads attacking her. One direct-mail piece, funded by Americans for Prosperity, showed her next to President Obama.

"You can imagine how devastating that was," said Jonathan Aanestad, a Doepke campaign adviser.

David Osmek said that he won because of shoe-leather politicking, that Doepke had likely outspent him and that she had the support of her own set of independent groups. No faction had any hold on him, he said.

"I was Dave before Ron Paul came on the scene or the Tea Party was even conceived," he said. "I subscribe to some of the things that they believe in, but I was there long before the movement started."

Doepke said she feared the campaign has left "a deep wound" in the Republican base in her district.

"I hope that as the campaign goes forward, it will be about the issues that are important to the people. It should be about nothing else," she said.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455