Rick Scott hardly seems the slick, glad-handing politician that voters are used to. He speaks softly, almost mumbling, as he lays out his plan for taxes and insurance at a recent town-hall meeting at the swanky Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fla. Mr. Scott, a former health-care chief executive, is new to politics. He is very rich and very conservative – tea party conservative. And he may be the next governor of Florida.
Most surprising to longtime observers of Florida politics is that Scott seemed to appear out of nowhere. The state has its share of wealthy businessmen, but Scott was not part of that social milieu. "It's almost like he landed from Mars with all this money. Next thing you know, he wins the Republican primary," says Brad Coker, president of Mason Dixon polling, who is based in Jacksonville, Fla.
The 2010 election cycle will be most remembered for the birth and rapid rise of the low-tax, limited-government tea party movement, which has energized frustrated conservatives nationwide heading into the Nov. 2 midterms, mostly to the Republican Party's benefit. But the tea party is actually part of the larger trend of this election: the rise of the outsider.
VIDEO: Voices of the tea party
Wealthy businesspeople, women, minorities, and first-time candidates have all grabbed Republican nominations this cycle to a noteworthy degree. Some were recruited to run by the party, others ran in defiance of the GOP establishment. The net result is the most diverse field of candidates Republicans have ever seen.
"Part of it was a concerted outreach on the part of party leaders to get a diverse range of candidates, which was a very smart thing," says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "Part of it was the obvious political opportunity that savvy candidates saw in this year."
In addition to Scott in Florida, wealthy Republicans with open checkbooks – most of whom have never run for office before – are competing for the governorships of California and Michigan and for the Senate in California, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and West Virginia. Self-funding by no means guarantees election; first-timers can be prone to rookie mistakes. Lavish spending out of one's personal fortune can also seem off-key at a time of financial hardship for many voters. But wealthy candidates argue that they can't be bought by special interests.
Republican women have also burst onto the scene this cycle. Call it the "Palin effect" – a wave of conservative women inspired by the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee's sudden stardom. A record number of women, 298, filed to run for the House and Senate, and for the first time, the Republicans nearly matched the Democrats in numbers. Still, many lost their primaries, and so an anticipated "Year of the Republican Woman" hasn't quite materialized.
And not all GOP women have wrapped themselves in former Governor Palin's "mama grizzly" mantle. Both of California's high-profile Republican women candidates – Meg Whitman for governor and Carly Fiorina for Senate – managed to have scheduling conflicts when Palin appeared at a big GOP rally in Orange County on Oct. 16. But there's no doubt that conservative women are emboldened by a new sense of possibility in a party whose right wing has moved beyond the notion that women with children should be at home full time. Hillary Rodham Clinton's strong run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 may also have provided feminist inspiration across the aisle. Tea partyer Christine O'Donnell, the Republican Senate nominee from Delaware, has said more than once that she admires Secretary of State Clinton.
Another traditional Achilles' heel for the GOP has been minorities, and again, 2010 has seen a boost. Fourteen black Republicans have been nominated in House races. One is sure to win – putting the first GOP African-American in the House since J.C. Watts retired in 2002 – and two others have a chance. Black Republicans say the election of the first black president helped wake up their ranks.
Overall, it was a banner year for Republican recruitment, as the nation's economic woes, industry bailouts, and health-care reform energized the right. But not everything has gone according to plan. The tea party movement, a boon to the Republicans for its energy, also helped defeat more mainstream, establishment favorites in key primaries – including Scott's upset victory over Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum – which could cost the party seats.
In Scott's case, even the $1.7 billion Medicare fraud judgment against his former company, Columbia/HCA, didn't scare off Republican primary voters. Scott's track record as a successful businessman – and job creator – is all many Florida voters want to hear about in this era of stubbornly high employment.
The net result is a Republican Party whose national short-term prospects remain excellent but whose longer-term future is dotted with question marks.
Here's the short-term outlook:
House Republican leader John Boehner can probably start measuring the drapes in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office. With about 100 out of 435 House seats in play, most of them held by Democrats, nonpartisan handicappers predict gains comfortably beyond the 39 seats needed for a GOP takeover. "Democrats' chances of losing at least 50 seats are now greater than their chances of holding losses under 45 seats," David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report wrote Oct. 14.
The Senate is a steeper climb. Republicans need a net gain of 10 seats to take control, and they would need to win most of the Democratic seats in play while losing none of their own. It is in the Senate where the tea party has done the Republicans a disservice: If the GOP establishment candidates had won their primaries in Nevada and Delaware, instead of the tea party-backed Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, those races would be almost-sure GOP pickups – and a GOP majority would be much more reachable. Instead, Senate majority leader Harry Reid has a fighting chance of keeping his Senate seat in Nevada, and Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware can look forward to lots of Amtrak rides to and from Washington.
Among the 37 governorships up for grabs in November, Republicans are poised to make a net gain of about six seats. The stakes could not be higher as redistricting approaches, followed by the 2012 presidential race where friendly governors can be a tremendous asset. Three of the five biggest states have tight races – Florida, California, and Illinois – and if the Democrats can win two of those three, that would be a significant bright spot on an otherwise bleak election night.
Perhaps most remarkable about the 2010 campaign season is how conservatives went from despondent to defiant so quickly, after the crushing defeats of the 2006 and 2008 cycles. Two years ago, the energy was on the left, fueled by the historic candidacy of Barack Obama and the prospect of full Democratic control in Washington for the first time since 1994.
"They probably were doing what I was doing, which was being angry and frustrated and holding my nose and voting for the [Republican] party," says Ms. Leone, who owns a small marketing business and helped start a local tea party group early last year. "We don't do that anymore, because we know that our country's at stake."
In other words, no more sitting idly by and voting for whomever the party puts up. Thus was born the Marco Rubio phenomenon – the young, charismatic conservative who, with tea party support, effectively forced the moderate Gov. Charlie Crist out of the GOP Senate primary, and is now well positioned to become Florida's junior senator.
Leone still fears the country is being taken over from within, by Mr. Obama's top aides and by the appointed "czars" who advise him on key issues. But she has faith in the founding principles of this nation, as enshrined in the Constitution.
"People are disillusioned on both sides – either because [Obama] is too liberal or because he hasn't done enough for them," she says. "It's a very strange time in America, but I'm full of hope."
Beyond Nov. 2, the Republicans could face big challenges. Polls indicate the two parties are equally unpopular, suggesting that voters are not embracing Republicans as much as they are rejecting Democrats. "The American people see a Congress and Senate and White House all controlled by one party, but they don't see a brake pedal on this car," says Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. Come January, Obama will still be president, so "the only question is whether there will be a brake on the car."
The comparisons to the 1994 midterms are obvious. A new Democratic president is blamed for overreaching – with Bill Clinton, it was tax increases and crime legislation – and voters take it out on the congressional Democrats, wiping out the majorities in both houses. In 2010, Democratic strategists thought the passage of health-care reform would be a boon going into the midterms, as it showed their party capable of enacting a major reform on an issue that voters cared about. President Clinton had failed to pass health reform, and lacked a signature accomplishment after two years in office.
As it has turned out, Obama's success in passing the big, complicated reform presented Republicans with a juicy target. The White House has been ineffective in selling the program to the public – both the conservatives who feel it overreaches and liberals who wish it went further – and few endangered Democrats are embracing it. Legal challenges to its constitutionality have fueled the controversy. And with jobs and the economy as Issue No. 1, voters blame Democrats for misplaced priorities.
In one way, Republicans need to worry about the comparison with 1994. Back then, only 39 percent of the public viewed the GOP unfavorably. By February of this year, that number was 57 percent, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.
Another measure shows no love lost for either party: Fifty-eight percent of Americans believe the nation needs a third major party, a tie for the highest score since Gallup began asking the question in 2003. Among tea partyers, the figure is 62 percent, which raises the question of whether this newly energized segment of the electorate will try to form its own party.
For now, the Republicans have mostly succeeded in absorbing the tea party into their ranks. The New York Times identifies 138 tea party candidates, all Republicans, running for the House or Senate. Thirty-three have a good to excellent chance of winning their House races and eight could reach the Senate. A handful of tea partyers are running as third-party candidates, and could serve as spoilers for the GOP nominees, though some are suspected of being Democratic plants.
Most interesting are the races in which mainstream Republicans defeated tea party candidates in the primary, and how the tea party groups are responding to them. According to a Bloomberg poll, one-third of likely voters support the tea party, and of them, 4 out of 5 plan to vote Republican.
But GOP nominees are on notice. In the closely watched Fifth Congressional District in Virginia, mainstream Republican candidate Robert Hurt, who defeated multiple tea partyers to win his primary, has signed various pledges that commit him to vote essentially the tea party line – for example, against any tax increases and for defunding of Obama's health-care reform.
If elected, Mr. Hurt will operate under the watchful eye of the Virginia Tea Party Patriot Federation, a coalition of 33 tea party groups and 9-12 organizations (grass-roots groups started by Glenn Beck) across the state. How long does Hurt have to get it right?
"A week!" says Virginia federation board member Karen Hurd, with a laugh. "Robert Hurt is basically on loan."
In other words, if Hurt is perceived to have "strayed," he can expect a tea party primary challenge in 2012.
The recent convention in Richmond of the Virginia federation brought together more than 2,000 tea party activists from around the state – the largest such gathering in the country to date.
They met not just to get revved up for Nov. 2, but to build for the future. Participants were handed a "federation initiative" – a package of measures for the state legislature designed to promote the tea party's principles of limited government, federalism, individual liberty, and free markets.
Virginia tea partyers take federalism seriously. They know that working closer to home can pay off big, and have ripple effects that reach Washington. In January, members will hold a lobby day in Richmond for the measures.
Most eyebrow-raising at the Oct. 8-9 tea party convention was the posture of Virginia's top two elected officials, who participated not as keynote speakers but as panelists, taking questions written by tea party activists. Virginia's political universe appeared upside down. Yet some tea partyers fear being co-opted by the Republican Party.
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.
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.