Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping for big showings from a former governor in Virginia and sitting House members in Connecticut, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin. Highly-touted current and former state attorneys general are running for both parties in North Dakota and Nebraska too. There are some notable exceptions where true outsiders have legitimate pathways to electoral victory (among others: Massachusetts for Democrats, Pennsylvania for Republicans) but by and large, those who already know the game are the ones leading on the scoreboard.
-- "The freshmen" was the easy answer every time something unexpected happened in the House this year, but their influence was often misstated. Yes, the tea party-infused class helped drive the whole conversation in the House and the Republican Party to the right-but when the time came to vote, National Journal analysis showed that freshmen tended to cast "ayes" and "nays" at roughly the same rate as the rest of the conference. The real influence of the freshman House Republicans was that their strength in numbers empowered veteran conservatives like Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan to defy leadership at critical times, such as the July debt ceiling negotiations.
-- Meanwhile, the GOP's freshman senators went largely unnoticed. That's because they are just a small part of the Senate minority. But if you look at the big, bipartisan compromise votes of the past year, like the debt ceiling vote and the numerous continuing resolutions to keep the government's lights on, a few names pop up in the "nay" column again and again: Ron Johnson, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee, for example, along with a few like-minded veterans including Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn. With 23 Democratic Senate seats up in the 2012 elections, plus the opportunity to replace a relative moderate Republican in retiring Texan Kay Bailey Hutchison, it's worth keeping in mind how different the Senate would be with a larger contingent of tea party Republicans. We may find out in 2013.
-- Then again, while several Democratic-controlled seats may end up being filled by conservative Republicans, 2011 was not the year of the tea party revolt against moderate GOPers it once looked like it might be. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a top target of conservative ire, is still without a GOP challenger (though he may very well get one in state Sen. Dan Liljenquist early next year) after scaring away Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz. Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock has struggled to raise money against Sen. Richard Lugar and Sen. Olympia Snowe's, R-Maine, GOP challengers are hardly even worth mentioning.
-- When it comes to gubernatorial races, Democrats have to be pleased with their 2011, holding onto governor's mansions in Kentucky and West Virginia. That feeling isn't likely to last into 2012, when Republicans have many more pickup opportunities and more national money.