‘Tea party' victories confirm its position as new political power center
Published: Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 09:11
WASHINGTON-The "tea party" movement, a loose amalgam of activists united chiefly by their determination to make government smaller, was on track to elect dozens of Republicans on Tuesday night and to confirm its standing as a rising power in national politics.
Tea party-backed candidates scored early victories in several high-profile contests. In Florida, Marco Rubio was elected to the Senate, defeating two opponents. And in Kentucky, Rand Paul, one of the movement's highest-profile figures, capped success with a rousing declaration of movement values.
"I have a message from the people of Kentucky, a message that is loud and clear and that does not mince words: We've come to take our government back," Paul told supporters at a victory celebration. "America can rise up and surmount these problems if we just get government out of our way."
At the same time, two candidates with tea party backing may have cost Republicans a chance at controlling the Senate. In Delaware, Christine O'Donnell failed to shake off questions about seemingly bizarre past statements and establish herself as a credible candidate. At one point she took to the airwaves to declare, "I'm not a witch."
In Nevada, Sharron Angle lost to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was deeply unpopular in his home state but spent months describing Angle as an out-of-touch extremist who would phase out Social Security and eliminate federal agencies.
Nearly 140 tea party-backed candidates were running in House or Senate races across the country. While roughly half were running as underdogs in Democratic-leaning districts and thus likely to fall short, more than a dozen others appeared headed for election, and another two dozen were in tight races.
And tea party influence is likely to extend beyond mere numbers, especially on federal spending: By stiffening the anti-spending bloc that already existed in the House and Senate, the tea party members will put new pressure on Republicans and conservative Democrats, affecting future legislative battles and the climate for 2012.
For months, many in the tea party ranks have railed against Washington and an administration they describe as set on expanding government to a dangerous level. Many have promised to make a vote on repeal of President Barack Obama's signature health care law their first order of business.
They've also vowed to reject additional stimulus for the economy.
As expected, tea party strength was most visible in House races. In Florida, Sandy Adams unseated Democratic Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, a freshman who backed the health care and stimulus bills. And Steve Southerland, a co-founder of a local tea party group, unseated Rep. Allen Boyd, a conservative 'Blue Dog' Democrat in his seventh term.
In Virginia, 14-term congressman Rick Boucher lost to Republican Morgan Griffith, the majority leader in the Virginia House who was supported by local tea party groups.
The picture was not nearly as rosy for the movement in Senate races, where some of the 11 tea party candidates struggled against charges of extremism and others faced pressure to soften their positions to attract moderates.
In Delaware, tea party-affiliated GOP candidate Christine O'Donnell failed to shake off questions about seemingly bizarre past statements and establish herself as a credible candidate. At one point she took to the airwaves to declare, "I'm not a witch."
In Colorado, Ken Buck walked back statements that appeared to suggest he wanted to privatize veterans' hospitals.
More than any other, the Nevada Senate race became a test case for tea party candidates competing in statewide elections. Tea party favorite Sharron Angle faced off against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was deeply unpopular in his home state but spent months describing Angle as an out-of-touch extremist who would phase out Social Security and eliminate federal agencies.
In a race that came down to the wire, the outcome remained uncertain Tuesday night.
But the tea party's political muscle extended well beyond individual contests.
Since emerging in opposition to Obama's economic programs, the tea party demonstrated a remarkable ability to oust Republicans it deemed moderate. It also forced nearly all GOP candidates to take a hard line on taxes, spending and opposition to the health care law.
"They're all talking to our issues," Andrew Ian Dodge, a tea party leader in Maine, said. "We've moved the discussion to our way of thinking."
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The movement, which began in February 2009 with a television reporter's rant against federal aid to troubled homeowners, grew quickly into the most visible source of opposition to Obama's policies and the most active corner of Republican politics.
The result was a loose network joined by the tea party or "patriot" label _ and sometimes little else.
Some argued that the movement should only advocate for issues; others actively endorsed candidates and jumped into the campaigns.
Supported by longtime Republican operatives, the latter organized hundreds of rallies, formed scores of local clubs, and began training volunteers.
Led by the Tea Party Express, a committee run by California GOP operative Sal Russo, these activists scored a string of early successes in small states where a relatively modest financial investment could have a large impact.
And by the time voters went to the polls Tuesday, their influence had grown so much that they largely defined the political climate for almost all Republican candidates.