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Politics / Politics

The Tea Party Comes to Washington

Paul, Rubio, and Lee Win, but Not O'Donnell, Angle.

Stanly Emond, left, and Ziqir 'Ziggy' Berisha participate in a Tea Party Express rally on Monday in Connecticut.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

November 2, 2010

Updated at 1:45 a.m. on November 3.

Rand Paul, who bucked his own party leadership on his way to becoming the next Republican senator from Kentucky, gave full credit to the conservative insurgent movement in claiming his victory last night.

"Tonight, there’s a tea party tidal wave," Paul told jubilant supporters.


Paul's victory was the first in a string of tea party victories, but several of the movement's favorites fell short, most notably in Nevada where Republican Senate challenger Sharron Angle lost her bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Tea Party Express, a major funder for Angle, issued a statement wondering "if there was any candidate that could have stood up against the withering storm of Reid’s $25 million dollar campaign." Unfortunately for the tea party group, it booked space for a “Victory Watch Party” at the Aria Hotel and Casino, the same place where Reid scheduled his election night party.

Christine O'Donnell's loss to Chris Coons in the Delaware Senate race kept the seat that Vice President Joe Biden occupied for 37 years in Democratic hands. And, as expected, the New York GOP's pugilistic gubernatorial nominee, Carl Paladino, lost the race to Democrat Andrew Cuomo.

Elsewhere, tea party candidates had a good run. In the Florida Senate race, Marco Rubio of Florida beat Gov. Charlie Crist, who left the Republican Party to run as an independent, and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek. Rubio's victory shows the tea party's power in Florida, where Crist had huge name recognition. Some jubilant supporters at his victory party already have higher ambitions for the Cuban American. "Marco Rubio: presidente," some of them chanted. Florida also contributed a tea party Republican to the House, with Allen West defeating Rep. Ron Klein, D-Fla.

In South Carolina, tea party Republican Nikki Haley bested Democrat Vincent Sheheen. Haley, who will be the state's first woman governor, survived unsubstantiated charges of adultery during the campaign.

Utah's tea party Republican Senate candidate Mike Lee also beat Democratic candidate Sam Granato. The Utah race provided one of the earliest indications of the strength of the conservative insurgency earlier this year when tea party activists denied veteran Republican Sen. Robert Bennett his party’s nomination.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican who pulled in tea party support, handily beat his Democratic challenger Bill White.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., also won his reelection bid, officially ensconcing the conservative as a potential new leader of what could be a critical mass of conservative insurgents. "While others vie to be the face of conservatism, Jim DeMint is undoubtedly its backbone," the fiscally conservative Club for Growth said in a statement congratulating the South Carolinian. DeMint, who backed Paul in a GOP primary over Trey Grayson, the handpicked candidate of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., celebrated his protege's win.

"Rand overcame difficult odds because he consistently stood up for conservative principles," DeMint said in a statement.

DeMint told Fox News that he hopes the new Republican elected officials can win over wary voters. "I think people are fired up, but... they’re not necessarily enthralled with the Republican Party and they’re not sure they can trust us again," he said.

The early victories for tea party candidates demonstrated the strength of the movement, which has redefined electoral expectations this year.

Now the question is: Will they redefine Washington?

One of the weaknesses of the movement was illustrated in Delaware, where O'Donnell scored a surprise upset over veteran Rep. Michael Castle in the Republican primary. Castle was considered such a strong contender in the general election that Beau Biden, the Delaware attorney general and a son of the vice president, opted not to make the race. But O'Donnell's outspoken conservatism was apparently too much for Delaware's middle-of-the-road voters and opened the door for Coons.

In some cases, the tea party's lack of central organization has diluted its influence, as in Colorado, where different factions of the movement endorsed Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Maes and others are backing his independent rival, former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo. With votes split, the Colorado gubernatorial seat went to the Democrat, John Hickenlooper.

But the tea party has energized voters and elevated heretofore unknowns to political prominence. Neither O’Donnell nor her fellow tea partier, Alaska Senate nominee Joe Miller, nor South Carolina’s next governor Haley were supposed to even have a shot in their GOP primaries, but tea party activism helped rocket them to stardom.

House, Senate, and gubernatorial races each feature more than 20 candidates who are products of tea party activism or who have been aided by the movement, and some can already pick the upholstery for their Washington offices.

They run the gamut from Lee to Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is the first African-American Republican elected to the House from the Deep South since Reconstruction.

Groups like the Tea Party Express have tried to be kingmakers in high-profile races such as Nevada’s Senate contest, where the PAC has largely been credited for Angle’s unexpected staying power against Reid.

But while tea party candidates are riding the conservative wave into Washington this year, whether they will truly be an “asset” to the GOP remains problematic.

“These people are just anti- any concentration of power, whether Democrat or Republican,” said Reagan scholar and former political strategist Craig Shirley. If the tea party can’t or won’t coalesce with their Capitol Hill colleagues, a 2010 success for the movement could swing the other way come 2012.

For those keeping score at home, here are some of the prominent candidates who can claim tea party support:

Sharron Angle, Nevada, Senate (projected loser)

Ken Buck, Colorado, Senate

Jim DeMint, South Carolina, Senate (projected winner)

Mike Lee, Utah, Senate (projected winner)

Joe Miller, Alaska, Senate

Christine O'Donnell, Delaware, Senate (projected loser)

Rand Paul, Kentucky, Senate (projected winner)

Marco Rubio, Florida, Senate (projected winner)

Michele Bachmann, Minnesota-06, House (projected winner)

Jesse Kelly, Arizona-08, House

Mike Pence, Indiana-06, House (projected winner)

Tim Scott, South Carolina-01, House

Allen West, Florida-22, House (projected winner)

Nikki Haley, South Carolina, Governor (projected winner)

Paul LePage, Maine, Governor

Dan Maes, Colorado, Governor (projected loser)

Carl Paladino, New York, Governor (projected loser)

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