Democrats have celebrated the wins of upstart Tea Party candidates across the country, and not without good reason.
In the aftermath of attorney Joe Miller's win in Alaska, it now appears Democrats may have a shot at winning the state's Senate seat, if defeated incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski splits the GOP vote with a write-in campaign. In Delaware, Tea Partiers have knocked off a prized Republican candidate in Congressman Mike Castle, expected by many to enter the U.S. Senate after November, putting on the Republican ballot conservative commentator Christine O'Donnell, a candidate with considerable baggage who trails the Democrat by at least 11 points in major polls. In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got his preferred opponent in Tea Partier Sharron Angle.
In a handful of states across the country, Tea Party victories have given Democrats more hope of winning elections.
"Look at all these states where we get to be competitive," one Democratic operative told me, marveling at the bountiful gifts the Tea Party had bestowed.
But taking a broader view, the jilted anger that motivates the Tea Party has been a gigantic boon to the Republican Party over the past year and a half.
Political strategists and media commentators were wholly consumed with one political question after the 2008 election: how can the Republican Party return to competitiveness? Republicans themselves acknowledged that their party was in dire straits and had possibly become irrelevant.
"We've become a regional party, basically become a white, rural, regional party, and not a national party. And we're going to have to retool ourselves," said retiring Congressman Tom Davis, a Virginian who served as top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on Election Day in 2008.
A wide debate broke out within Republican ranks about the future of the GOP. Influential bloggers like RedState's Erick Erickson urged a return to ideological, conservative purity, warning that the Republican Party could only appeal to voters if it stuck to its core principles. Others, including Newt Gingrich and Sen. John Cornyn, who chairs the party's Senate campaign committee, leaned toward broadening the tent by accommodating more moderate candidates who, they said, could appeal to a wider swath of voters.
This debate was played out in the off-year elections of November 2009, as a House race in New York's 23rd congressional district drew national attention, with third-party conservative Doug Hoffman accumulating help from ideological conservatives outside the state (including Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express) and eventually forcing the Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, out of the race.
Flash forward to September 2010. Serious political analysts including Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg project the Republican Party to take over the House in November. Senate and governor's races are supposed to tip definitively in the GOP's favor as well.
What's changed between then and now? A lot of things, but many of those changes--the laborious and, at times, ugly process of reforming health care; the souring of public opinion on the stimulus; concern over taxes--have translated into the anger and discontent that, in their purest distillation, make up the Tea Party movement, which has become both the symbol for and the political machinery to express those wide currents of political sentiment.
At its worst, the Tea Party movement will prevent the Republican Party from winning a handful of Senate seats this fall--and, depending on how close the margins are, it could conceivably produce a few House losses that will get blamed for Republicans missing out on a majority.
But at its best, the movement has answered all those panicky questions for the Republican Party and given it some much needed direction. These days, it's hard to tell who is a Tea Party candidate and who isn't--because most Republicans talk about spending and debt and taxes as if they were Tea Partiers anyway.
If Democrats are thankful for the Tea Party, their Republican enemies should be too. Even if the movement proves out of step with what most Americans think, at least the Republican Party has a step to march to.