Lesson #2: Don't Overplay Your Hand
There are, however, a few notable exceptions to rule #1. For the most topical example, see O'Donnell, Christine. In Delaware, Tea Partiers took out a surefire Republican senator in Mike Castle and replaced him with an almost-definite loser, all in the name of ideological purity. As a result, Democrats may retain control of the U.S. Senate in November. The same thing happened in New York's 23rd Congressional district in November 2009, where the Tea Party-supported candidate, Doug Hoffman, ousted GOP frontrunner Dede Scozzafava and handed the seat to a Democrat, Bill Owens. And history may repeat itself in the Florida governor's race and other pivotal contests where Tea Party ideologues with questionable credentials knocked off polished Republican frontrunners in the primaries. Sometimes frontrunners are there for a reason.
Lessons #3: Even Insurgents Must Be Pragmatic
Even though he was stereotyped as a left-wing radical, Dean aggressively courted conservative red-state voters as DNC chair and famously said, while running for president, that he wanted "to be the candidate for guys with confederate flags in their pickup trucks." In 2006, Dean challenged then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel over how the party should win elections, not on what kinds of candidates they should support. Dean's local organizers supported some of Rahm's favorite candidates, such as Brad Ellsworth in southern Indiana, who opposed gun control, abortion rights, gay marriage and immigration reform.
The Tea Party is far more ideological than Dean ever was. They've tried, in a few instances, to adopt "Tea Party Democrats" like House candidate Mike Olivero in West Virgnia and Congressman Walt Minnick of Idaho. Minnick, another unlikely success story of the Democrats' 50-state strategy in 2008, has voted against every major legislative initiative pushed by President Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, including the stimulus, healthcare reform, cap and trade, and financial reform. He initially accepted the endorsement of the Tea Party Express but repudiated it after the group's then-chairman, Mark Williams, penned a racially inflammatory blog post. For now, the Tea Party is whiter, wealthier, more male-dominated and more conservative than the country as a whole. That might not be a huge liability in a midterm election--whose voting populace tends to skew older and more conservative as a rule--but in future elections the Tea Party base will need to expand in order to keep up with Obama's rainbow coalition.
Lesson #4: Be Careful What You Wish For
Nancy Pelosi has had a hell of a time keeping many of the conservative Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008 in line on crucial votes. But her struggles will be a walk in the park compared to John Boehner or Mitch McConnell's tango with the Tea Party if Republicans assume control of the House or Senate (or both) in 2010. A slew of Tea-Party-backed candidates will soon arrive in Washington, eager to investigate Obama's birth certificate, expose his long-hidden Muslim identity and slash any number of popular government programs. Just as Newt Gingrich's shutdown of the federal government revitalized Bill Clinton's presidency in 1995, so too could Tea Party overreach reenergize Obama, making him seem rational and moderate by comparison and motivating his base to redouble its efforts in 2012. And that doesn't even factor in the Tea Party's influence on the 2012 Republican presidential primaries. Dean led to Obama. The Tea Party may lead to Republican nominee Sarah Palin. We'll see who screams last.