Republicans will have to embrace the Tea Party in the most conspicuous, important way to date now that Marco Rubio will become the party's nominee for Senate in Florida.
Rubio, a Republican, ran against Charlie Crist practically as a Tea Partier from the outset by savaging the stimulus and slamming conciliation with President Obama. In other words, Rubio's an avatar of the Tea Party that just won a hugely important Republican Party contest. Now Republican leaders are surely moving to support Rubio, from Florida kingpin Jeb Bush to John Cornyn (head of the GOP's campaign arm for Senate races) to Michael Steele. There can be no denying that the GOP and Tea Party are now joined, at least at the narrow point of the Senate race in Florida. (The same merger can't be said yet of other insurgents such as Rand Paul in Kentucky.)
If Rubio picks up steam heading toward the election, the narrow connection between Tea and GOP will broaden greatly. Lay Republicans will cheer the Tea Partier, across Florida and within conservative circles across the country. If he's elected, the merger between parties will accelerate as he becomes a national figure. You can bet your house the organizers of the 2012 Republican convention would want him in a prime time speaking spot -- a la Barack Obama in 2004.
Speaking of 2012: if Rubio loses in a three-way race against Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek, he could easily gun for Sen. Bill Nelson next. That campaign would start the same way as this one has: blame Crist for helping Democrats because he split the Republican vote in 2010. Plus, it would be an easy sell to Republicans: Crist left the party and Rubio found a place in its heart.
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