The Tea Party Takes On Washington

The full measure of the Tea Party's electoral triumph won't become clear until Alaska tallies its write-in ballots, which could take several weeks. But the movement's impact on Tuesday's elections has been unmistakable. Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and a host of other insurgents stormed to victory on the strength of their denunciations of a government they insist has grown dangerously large and spendthrift.

Although a few Tea Party stars such as Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle lost, the movement itself proved broadly appealing: Exit polls showed that four in 10 voters considered themselves supporters of the Tea Party, and, according to NBC, 113 of the 129 candidates [NBC has corrected, now says 40 of 130 candidates] for the House of Representatives who associated themselves with it won.

The Tea Party is a fringe movement no more. But will it be a lasting one?

That's not yet clear. Tea Party candidates lost winnable races in Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado that could have handed control of the Senate to Republicans. But the real test lies ahead. And when the winners get to Washington, Democrats won't be the only challenge that awaits them. As Trent Lott, the former GOP Senate leader-turned-lobbyist said, "As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them.''

One historical antecedent that could prove instructive is the midterm election of 1978, which gave rise to an earlier conservative insurgency, the New Right, that would eventually shape the modern Republican Party. The magnitude of that shift was smaller than Tuesday's, with the GOP winning 20 of 35 Senate seats and gaining 15 seats in the House, but the signs of change were there.

Hard-right conservatives like Gordon Humphrey, Roger Jepsen, and William Armstrong replaced three of the most liberal senators. Mississippi elected its first Republican senator since Reconstruction, Thad Cochran. And at the state level, voters launched the tax revolt by passing measures like California's Proposition 13, which cut property taxes.

Like this week's election, the nation's rightward shift in 1978 was largely unanticipated. Just as President Obama's resounding victory two years ago seemed to prefigure an enduring Democratic age, so, too, had the Watergate scandal, which also produced a wave of Democratic legislators. That may be one reason why so many of the day's leading commentators misread the significance of what was occurring. David Broder of The Washington Post called the 1978 midterms "a nothing election.''

In fact, the New Right that emerged from them had great effect nationwide, not only energizing activist conservatives to displace entrenched liberals from Congress, but by redefining the nature of conservatism as it was understood in Washington, and thereby shifting the country to the right.

The star candidates of 1978 did not, in the end, become influential figures; Humphrey, Jepsen, and Armstrong all were gone within two terms. It was an anonymous House candidate elected that year from Georgia, Newt Gingrich, who would eventually prove to be the most effective member of the the Class of 1978.

But more than any candidate, it was the ethos of that election that proved so enduring. Two years later, the New Right helped to elect Ronald Reagan, and eventually challenged New Deal liberalism.

With the Tea Party ascendant, it is always conceivable that one of its stars could follow a path similar to Reagan's. Paul and Rubio both are believed to harbor presidential ambitions, and of course there's always -- always! -- Sarah Palin. None of them, however, seems to possess anything like the experience, polish and broad appeal that Reagan held -- at least not yet.

If this election proves to be another great inflection point, such a shift seems far more likely to manifest in the form of a Republican Party recommitted to pursuing, and not just talking about, the Tea Party ideal of a smaller, more modest government. The perilous condition of our economy would seem to provide all the necessary preconditions for this change.

Whether that comes about, or whether the 2010 election comes to be seen as merely the temporary frustrations of a nation in recession, will depend on what the Tea Party achieves once it arrives here.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.