How the tea party helped GOP find a path to Election Day successes

Victories for tea-party candidates Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Jim DeMint showed the impact of the nascent conservative movement on the GOP's ability to project a winning posture.

By , Staff writer

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    U.S. Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio (L) waves beside his daughter Amanda during his victory speech at a rally in Coral Gables, Florida, Tuesday. Rubio and fellow winning tea party candidates Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have helped propel the GOP to the top of midterm elections.
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Concerns that the nascent tea party movement would hamper a return to relevancy for Republicans are quickly giving way as Election Day results suggest that in fact, the decentralized conservative protest movement helped give the GOP a roadmap to success.

"The biggest tea party is today," said Sen. Jim DeMint, a big tea party favorite, in a victory speech in his homestate of South Carolina. On Tuesday night, Rand Paul, a Senate candidate from Kentucky, called his victory a "tea party tidal wave."

Tea party-supported Republicans Marco Rubio in Florida (US Senate), John Boozman in Arkansas (US Senate), and Nikki Haley in South Carolina (governor) also were coasting to convincing victories Tuesday, even as one of the most famous tea party candidates, Christine O'Donnell, failed in her bid in to win a Delaware Senate seat. Glen Urqhart, also a tea party candidate in Delaware, lost his bid for a House seat, as well.

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But more importantly, the tea party, which at first worried and, frankly, scared both Democrats and mainstream Republicans, helped to give roiling anger over the economy and stubbornly high unemployment figures a national vent. Exit polls Tuesday gave the GOP a clear edge on turnout and passion, pointing the way for a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

At 9:17, CNN predicted that Republicans had won control of the House of Representatives.

"The primary effect of the tea party for was that it generated enormous intensity for Republicans, and for Republican candidates up and down the ballot," Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP pollster, told the Wall Street Journal's Gerald Sieb.

Of course, the general depressive effect of the economy on Democrat turnout, an unpopular health-care bill, and President Obama's own leadership stumbles played big roles in Republicans' quick reversal of the Democrats' coalescing victory in 2008.

Though scorned by many liberals, the loosely organized tea party – which has among its principles an audit of the federal reserve, repeal of the national health-care law, and tax cuts – managed to capture the mood of the country, with some polls indicating that as many as 48 percent of Americans had a somewhat positive view of the movement.

"The Tea Party victories by Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, underscored the extent to which Republicans and Democrats alike may have underestimated the power of the Tea Party, a loosely-affiliated, at times ill-defined, coalition of grass-roots libertarians and disaffected Republicans," writes Michael Cooper in the New York Times.

To be sure, some Republicans, including former Bush strategist Karl Rove, have scoffed at the unpolished caliber of candidates – including Ms. O'Donnell in Delaware – the tea party has supported in some races. (O'Donnell's loss could contribute to the Senate remaining in Democratic hands.) And it's still far from clear to what extent tea party-linked candidates will be able to force Congress to hold the line on government spending once they're in office.

But during the vociferous health-care debate and after the surprise election of Scott Brown to Sen. Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts seat in February, many Republicans chose to embrace the cantankerous and often unwieldy tea party message going into Tuesday's election.

In August, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told NBC's "Meet the Press" that the tea party's rise indicated "broad public support for doing something about too much spending and too much debt."

Sen. McConnell went on to say: "I think [the tea party] has been extremely helpful. It's produced a lot of excitement in our primaries, and I think it's going to produce victories in November."

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