Election 2010 all about tea party? It's more: It's year of the outsider.
The tea party has energized Republicans, even if it also complicates life for the GOP after Nov. 2. But the movement is actually part of a larger Election 2010 trend -- one that features the most diverse GOP field in history.
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Perhaps the most reassuring figure in attendance was state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is so popular among this crowd that attendees sported yellow "Cuccinelli for President" stickers. He has been in office less than a year, but has already carved out a national reputation for his legal challenge to Obama's health reform and for aggressively pursuing documents from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, on global warming that he believes show fraud.Skip to next paragraph
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Inside the Richmond convention center, it was a warm bath of tea party conviviality, with a firm determination to keep the movement growing after Nov. 2. The only problem is that Virginia is now a swing state; Obama won Virginia two years ago by seven points, the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in 44 years. Is the Virginia tea party leading the state GOP over the edge of a cliff?
"That's an open question," says Bob Holsworth, a Virginia political analyst. "But in the short term, I'm convinced it contributes to the enthusiasm gap we're seeing that works to the Republicans' advantage."
Nationally, the future of the tea party also remains an open question. The strength of this consciously decentralized movement varies from state to state. In some places, like Virginia, the Republican establishment and the tea party are openly collaborating. In others, there's friction. After Election Day, much depends on whether the Republicans take control of Congress and how they govern if they do, analysts say. But already, "every Republican politician is watching their right flank," says Mr. Ayres.
When Virginia and New Jersey both elected Republican governors last November, followed by Republican Scott Brown's stunning victory in the special Massachusetts Senate election in January, that was the canary in the coal mine. The Democrats' extraordinary run in 2006 and 2008, in which they took over both houses of Congress and the White House, had come to a crashing end.
The partisan pendulum has swung back, as it always does, sooner or later. Independent voters, in particular, have shifted sharply. Two years ago, they voted 2 to 1 for Obama and the Democrats. Now polls show a 2-to-1 preference for Republicans.
"The wave of hope that swept Obama into office was both a blessing and a curse for him," says Democratic strategist Steve McMahon.
Obama created such high expectations that he was almost bound to disappoint, especially given the dire economic circumstances he inherited and the intractable nature of Washington partisanship and gridlock. But despite his diminished job approval rating since taking office – from the high 60s to the mid-40s – no one counts Obama out for reelection in 2012. A Republican takeover of Congress could well help him on that score, giving him a foil against which to operate. So, too, could the growing field of potential Republican presidential candidates, especially if they feel a tea party tug to the right.
"The internal issues that could be posed inside the Republican Party are likely to become far more complicated than the opportunity to just say no to Pelosi, Reid, and Obama," says Mr. Holsworth, the Virginia political analyst.
VIDEO: Voices of the tea party