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Tea Party Tally

The meteoric rise of the tea party -- and the limits of its power

After a year and a half of stirring America's political pot, the tea party and its followers on Election Day won about 35 percent of the seats they targeted. Going forward, the tea party may find its strength to be at the state and local level.

By Staff writer / November 5, 2010

Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R) of Ky. and his wife Kelley arrive at his victory celebration in Bowling Green, Ky., on Nov. 2. The tea party's influence could be felt in individual races such as Rand Paul's in Kentucky, but perhaps more keenly in its ability to enchant the crucial independent vote.

Ed Reinke/AP

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Atlanta

For a self-described ragtag band of political scoundrels, they didn't do all that bad.

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After a year and a half of stirring America's political pot, the tea party and its followers on Election Day won about 35 percent of the seats they targeted. The tea party's influence could be felt in individual races such as Marco Rubio's in Florida and Rand Paul's in Kentucky, but perhaps more keenly in its ability to enchant the crucial independent vote. That vote was a key factor in what President Obama termed a "shellacking" of Democrats on Tuesday.

Nevertheless, the small-government, antitax buzz of the tea party may have been more of a flutter, at least on the national level: National tea party candidates, especially in super-crucial Senate races, tended toward the fringe, and the defeat of Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, and probably Joe Miller in Alaska doomed a GOP takeover of the Senate.

Yet the tea party's biggest impact may ultimately emanate not from the result of big national races, but from outcomes at the local and state level. State legislatures under GOP control went from 14 before the midterms to 25 as of Nov. 4, and the elections also produced a net gain of six Republican governors.

It is at the nonfederal level, tea party activists say, where the real 2010 conservative comeback found its footing and where its future power will probably be flexed – potentially affecting issues like congressional redistricting, an earmark ban, and education funding and even possibly fueling momentum for a national convention to consider a balanced-budget amendment to the United States Constitution.

"If you want to compare it to the original Boston Tea Party, this election was the dumping of the tea. In other words, we're just getting started," says tea party activist Rob Adkerson, a landscaper in Adairsville, Ga. "Nearly 700 state seats were won by Republicans, and that is where the influence of this movement came in. That is where local tea party groups got behind their guy and got the word out."

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