During the primary season, the Tea Party movement first proved its strength after candidates endorsed by the Republican Party fell one after another. And yesterday, the movement again demonstrated its prowess. All around the country, the Tea Party helped the GOP to big wins, not only winning a majority in the House but also gaining six Senate seats. With national attention now set in their direction, Tea Party candidates still have much to prove as they go from the campaign trail to the chambers of Capitol Hill--especially to those in their own movement. [See photos from the campaign trail.]
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who beat Democratic nominee Alvin Greene to maintain his seat, will have more company in the Senate next year, as voters last night elected a freshmen class flush with Tea Party favorites. In Kentucky, Republican ophthalmologist Rand Paul beat Democratic state Attorney General Jack Conway by nearly 12 percentage points. And in Florida, former Republican state House Speaker Marco Rubio bested the race's runner-up, independent Gov. Charlie Crist, by 19 points. Also, in Wisconsin, Tea Party-backed Ron Johnson outperformed incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold by nearly five points, and Pat Toomey squeaked by Joe Sestak to win Sen. Arlen Specter's seat in Pennsylvania. Tea Partyer Mike Lee, who bested Sen. Robert Bennett for the Republican nomination, also won a seat in Utah.
However, it wasn't all wins for the Tea Party. In the most-watched toss-up race of the night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won handily over Tea Party-backed candidate and former state legislator Sharron Angle. Also, Democrat Chris Coons toppled Republican political activist Christine O'Donnell. In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, running his campaign largely against his party's own agenda, beat businessman John Raese. Another major hit to the movement occurred just this afternoon, as Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet was announced the winner over the Tea Party pick Ken Buck.
While these losses were tough on the party, many Republicans say that the movement, overall, helped the GOP this cycle. "Republicans could not have won the majority of the night if the Tea Party movement had not defined the issues of this campaign and mobilized the voters," said Dick Armey, chair of FreedomWorks, a conservative group aligned with the Tea Party movement
A top Republican aide agrees, "On balance, I don't think any Republican would argue that the Tea Party movement wasn't a net positive. Our candidates won."
After the final votes are counted, the next obstacle for the GOP will be to find a way to work with the new conservatives. According to Amy Kremer, chair of the Tea Party Express, voters expect these new senators to stick to their values, namely fiscal restraint and limited government. "They're on probation," she said. "The people are their probation officers and if they don't do what they're sent there to do, they too will be fired in the next two to six years."