The Tea Party, in many respects, has been the political story of the last two years. When President Obama took office, few expected the force and virulence of the backlash against him, his presidency, and the broad legislative agenda he carried with him--including both the immediate measures he took to counteract the economic crisis and the thousand-page health-care bill Congress passed at his behest.
The Tea Party movement has continued along since its first protests in the spring of 2009, and in November it will face its first major test at the ballot boxes, as we find out whether this movement can succeed in reshaping American government by altering the congressional majorities and putting anti-Obama fiscal conservatives in office.
Republicans are hoping Tea Party activists will energize their base and deliver turnout and support; Democrats are hoping the movement will sabotage the GOP by forcing it to the extreme right and fomenting conflict within Republican ranks. Republican candidates and incumbents, meanwhile, are sticking to the Tea Party's anti-stimulus, anti-TARP stances on the campaign trail and meeting with Tea Party groups in search of endorsements, or at least approval and support from some of the members.
Every election cycle features a slew of conservative candidates in Republican primaries, but this year has seen even more. A Democratic House campaign operative estimated that at least two thirds of all House races feature a Tea-Party-aligned candidate of some sort, while a Democratic gubernatorial campaign specialist estimated that all 37 governor's races this year have seen a candidate bearing the Tea Party mantle.
Some candidates have succeeded, some have failed, and some have divided the Republican base by running. We won't know until Election Day whether the movement will damaged the Republican Party at the polls, as Democrats hope--while Republicans are facing post-primary unity issues in several states, there's still a lot of time to regroup and reunify before the midterms--but the Tea Party has undoubtedly changed the face of the 2010 elections by pushing several candidates onto the ballot in a handful of high-profile Senate races, competitive House races, and governor's races across the country.
It's difficult to decide who really is a "Tea Partier," given that so many candidates, including establishment-backed incumbents and well-known politicians who've run in previous cycles, have spoken to Tea Party groups and criticized the Obama economic agenda. In some races, like Florida's gubernatorial contest between Bill McCollum and Rick Scott, candidates fight over who has more Tea Party support. What's more useful, then, is to look at the candidates that Tea Party groups have backed with money and organizing.
A few of those candidates have succeeded, often with the help of Tea Party Express, the only national Tea Party name-brand group that raises money and spends it in support of candidates. In other races, state and local Tea Party groups, and the Dick-Armey-led FreedomWorks, have thrown their backing behind politicians and helped them onto the ballot.
In Nevada, Sharron Angle won her primary largely because of Tea Party Express's ad buys; in Utah, Mike Lee will probably be the state's next senator after he and Tim Bridgewater knocked incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett off the ballot (Lee was endorsed by FreedomWorks); in Florida, Marco Rubio is a flagship candidate of the Tea Party movement, having forced Gov. Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party; in Kentucky, Rand Paul was able to supplant the Mitch-McConnell-backed Trey Grayson; in Idaho's first Congressional district, Raul Labrador overtook Vaughn Ward after campaign missteps by the latter; in Colorado, Dan Maes capitalized on the support of Tea Party groups to defeat Scott McInnis for the gubernatorial nomination (aided by McInnis's plagiarism scandal); in Maine, Tea Partier Paul LePage has emerged as the GOP nominee for governor.
In all of those races, the Tea Party movement has pushed a candidate onto the ballot who may not have made it--and, in some cases, who certainly would not have made it--without the support and energy of the movement.
That handful of races is enough to say, fairly, that the movement has succeeded at this point in the election cycle. The movement's notable losses include the failed gubernatorial and Senate bids of Steve Poizner and Chuck DeVore in California (which, critics of Meg Whitman point out, forced her to the right on immigration). Tea Party candidates with little chance of winning have gone down in countless House, gubernatorial, and Senate primary defeats, most recently Peter Schiff in Connecticut and Clint Didier in Washington, both Senate candidates who lost their races this month by wide margins. Some Tea Party-backed candidates will probably lose in high-profile races. In Arizona, J.D. Hayworth will go down in flames to John McCain, while Joe Miller will probably lose his primary against Lisa Murkowski despite support from Sarah Palin and spending by Tea Party Express, but, to be fair, no major polling has been conducted to verify that he is indeed poised to lose.
Has the Tea Party fomented intra-party conflict on the right? Yes. And it could cost Republicans some races this November. In Virginia, Tea Partier Jeffrey Clark is running as an independent candidate and could help Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello survive November by taking GOP votes away from Robert Hurt; a similar situation could unfold in Virginia's second district, where Democratic Rep. Glenn Nye, another GOP target, faces a multi-way race involving third-party candidate Kenny Golden, even as National Republican Congressional Committee "Young Gun" candidate Scott Rigell was well positioned to challenge Nye in the fall. Republicans are stretching to take over the House this year (they will need 39 pickups), and a few missed opportunities could be costly.
Some of the Tea Party's successes could hurt the GOP in November, too. Harry Reid actually rooted for Sharron Angle in her primary, and her emergence could save Reid his position as Senate majority leader. In Kentucky, Paul leads Democratic AG Jack Conway in polls, but the establishment-backed Trey Grayson polled marginally better in head-to-head matchups against Conway before the primary. But other big-name Tea Party candidates don't saddle Republicans with huge disadvantages.
The hope of Democrats has been that Tea Partiers are just crazy enough to ruin the GOP in 2010. The cases of Angle and Paul are prime examples of what the Democrats hoped would happen; tho Republican Party has been hurt in those races by the candidates' not-so-mainstream views like the eradication of the Department of Education and principled support for private businesses' right to practice segregation.
The question is whether the Tea Party's energy will generate enough money and turnout to elect its candidates in November. We won't know until Election Day, but for now it's an open question; the Tea Party has seized on some candidate missteps (like in Colorado's gubernatorial race and the Idaho House primary), meaning its candidates aren't any less appealing than the damaged goods they were running against. In some other cases, the polling advantage would have gone to the establishment-backed candidate; in others, that's not the case.
But we can say that, at this point, the Tea Party has succeeded in pushing conservative candidates onto the ballot and putting them in a position to win election in November. Whether or not they do win is a story you'll see in every political publication, including this one, on November 3.