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.

Ed Reinke/AP
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.

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

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."

Going from guys and gals in tricorn hats outside some county courthouse on tax day last year to rejiggering national electoral dynamics 18 months later is certainly a major political accomplishment, especially for a decentralized interest group without an anointed leader.

The tea party got its first major spark in February 2009, when TV reporter Rick Santelli railed against an Obama administration program involving mortgages and called for a new "Chicago tea party." After that, mostly older, conservative Americans started peacefully protesting – sometimes in clusters of just six or seven people – in hundreds of big cities and small towns from California to Maine.

Those protests helped establish a general tea party umbrella that attracted Americans of all stripes, including GOP leaders such as Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Sarah Palin. In the process, they upset political balances in crucial primaries and eventually reached, among other things, the election this week of several black Republicans and an Indian-American female governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley.

Along the way, the tea party movement picked up flotsam in its trawl net, giving fuel to critics who paint it as hopelessly fringe and even a dangerous throwback. Reams of polls and doctoral dissertations have parsed its associations with everyone from white supremacy groups in Idaho to New York millionaires.

Yet the tea party movement has seemed to thrive off such criticism.

Political analysis around the tea party's rise nearly always misses the mark, says Mr. Adkerson, the Adairsville tea party activist. "It's just the American spirit, man – that's it," he says. "It's a human love of liberty. It spreads like fire."

Many who support the tea party – which is really nothing more than an amalgam of loosely tied local, state, and national group – have done so out of a sense that the people weren't being heard. America's economic woes and the rising national debt only added to the fire.

Independents especially "are always stuck with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, and they're neither: They swing back and forth," says Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. "The tea party could get those voters who wanted things moving in the other direction, who see [the tea party] as a way to get a balance."

Over the past year, polls have shown that about a third of Americans self-identify with the tea party. According to exit polls on Election Day, just over 4 in 10 voters said they at least somewhat support the tea party, with the remaining voters split between opposing the tea party and feeling neutral about it.

A USA Today/Gallup poll this week reported that Americans say the tea party has made politicians "more responsive to the views of ordinary citizens," but a majority also say, on the whole, that it has "created deeper political divisions" in the US.

The overall role of the tea party in the election results does not necessarily bode well for its future influence, according to some political experts. By raising high ideological expectations, the tea party has put a "political noose" around its own neck, Laurie Rhodebeck, a political scientist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, said recently.

The defeat of tea party Senate candidates in Nevada, Delaware, and possibly Alaska "raises important questions about the whole Tea Party project," writes David Frum, George W. Bush's former speechwriter. "It also weakens the alternative power structure in the GOP ...."

Whether Election 2010 signifies a movement rising or a movement reaching its zenith will be a major question as the new, clearly more conservative, Congress gets down to business. Another big question mark: Can newly elected tea party ideologues such as Mr. Paul in the Senate stand up to entrenched Republican and Democratic powers to check spending and push for tax cuts?

Some are optimistic that the tea party can continue to have an effect. Both national parties are now on "high alert," says Adkerson.

Hardly deterred, those in the tea party are eyeing other big goals. With 25 state legislatures now under Republican control, and many other states holding large Republican minorities, the prospect of a "balanced budget" constitutional convention, which needs the approval of two-thirds of statehouses, just improved, tea party activists say. The repeal of health-care reform and the defeat of Mr. Obama in the next presidential election are other big prizes.

Also, tea party-fueled victories for Republicans in state and gubernatorial races could become crucial in upcoming congressional redistricting efforts in 15 states. That could help cement conservative rule for a decade.

“I think we’re headed in the direction of tea party principles dominating and guiding the Republican Party,” David Adams, a Kentucky tea party leader, told the Associated Press.

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