The Tea Party movement was, until yesterday, a relatively unknown and elusive electoral force, having never existed for a national federal general election. Clearly, it had a great deal of influence among conservatives and Republicans during the primaries, with well-known "establishment" candidates in states such as Delaware, Alaska, and Nevada being knocked out one after another in favor of "Tea Party" candidates. In the immediate aftermath of the 2010 election (and even with a handful of races still undecided), it is hard to argue that the Tea Party wasn't a notable force in the general election as well. However, that force was not always positive, and indeed, some of the Tea Party's influences were bad, while a few instances were downright ugly. As someone who is neither a card-carrying party loyalist nor a dedicated Tea Party member, here is my take on those forces:
It is impossible to deny that the Tea Party contributed in many positive ways to the massive change of course that was the 2010 election. The Tea Party fueled much of the outrage behind the outcome, driving conservatives around the country to come out and vote in opposition to the President's extreme agenda. Accordingly, it seems unlikely that the magnitude of Republican gains in the House would have been possible without the Tea Party. Indeed, early exit poll data suggested that 41% of those voting in House races supported the Tea Party, while 31% opposed it – and that 87% of Tea Party supporters voted for the Republican candidate.
The Tea Party also helped elect immaculate candidates like Marco Rubio. The energy behind the Tea Party movement helped fuel Marco Rubio's lead in the Republican primary, which resulted in Charlie Crist deciding to instead run as an Independent, and ultimately produced a huge victory for Republicans nationwide. I firmly believe that Rubio, an incredibly brilliant and passionate man who will also happen to be the only Hispanic Republican in the Senate, will quickly emerge as a leader for the Republican Party. He's someone who can help attract many people from demographics key to long-term GOP sustainability – including Latinos and potentially young voters. Senator-elect Rubio's victory is certainly one of the most exciting developments of yesterday's election results.
On the other hand, the Tea Party seems to have been fairly damaging to the prospect of a GOP takeover of the Senate. At the time of writing, Republicans had gained 6 seats in the Senate for a total of 46, which is unquestionably a respectable outcome. It looks like the votes remaining to be counted in Washington and Colorado will push the Democratic candidates over the top in both states – and Alaska is still a question mark, though it seems likely that either candidate will caucus with Republicans.
It's distinctly possible (and in at least one of the cases, fairly likely) that at least two of the Democratic Senate victories could have been Republican victories if not for relatively poor Tea Party candidates. These candidates are, of course, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware (I'll come back to the latter shortly).
I actually expected Angle to squeak by, albeit very tightly. The bottom line, however, is that Angle as a candidate left a lot to be desired – just Google "sharron angle gaffe" for a plethora of examples, but this one in particular comes to mind. Her loss against a highly unpopular and vulnerable Harry Reid is an unambiguous testament to that fact.
Obviously, different results in the two races in Delaware and Nevada – even with the victor in Alaska caucusing with Republicans – would not alone have produced a majority (Republicans would then hold 49 seats in the Senate before CO and WA). However, it seems hard to believe there won't be a battle in the Senate sometime over the next two years in which those two additional Republican Senators would be helpful. Not to mention the possibility that Independent Senators Lieberman and Nelson may have chosen to caucus with Republicans.
There's Sharron Angle, and then there's Christine O'Donnell. I have to make it clear up front that I think Ms. O'Donnell is a wonderful woman. I had a meeting with her and her campaign manager shortly before she exploded onto the national scene, and I found her well-spoken, intelligent, and extremely personable. But being a great person is not nearly enough in politics, particularly at the Senatorial level, and there's no way that a reasonable person can honestly say that she was remotely close to being even an acceptable candidate. When you need to run an ad saying that you're "not a witch," your campaign is clearly in trouble. Let alone the countless allegations of impropriety in handling campaign funds, which regardless of whether they are true make it unmistakenly clear that the Tea Party members who backed her candidacy and helped her defeat Mike Castle in the primary blatantly failed to properly vet her.
Karl Rove's thoughts on this are spot-on:
"It gave me no pleasure to say that she was unlikely to win," he said. "But this again provides a lesson. This is a candidate who was right on the issues, but who had mishandled a series of questions brought up by the press."
From start to finish, Christine O'Donnell's candidacy as the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Delaware was flat out ugly.
Even with a handful of outcomes still up in the air, it is unmistakenly clear that the 2010 election was nothing less than a wave delivered by voters who resoundingly rejected the Democratic agenda. A great deal of outrage came from members of the Tea Party movement, and that frustration played an important role in delivering substantial gains for Republicans – not only in the Congress, but also in governor's mansion and state legislatures around the nation. However, with these positives came at least one significant negative – a larger than ideal Democratic margin in the Senate that resulted from a couple of poor Tea Party candidates.