Six-term Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican who faces a primary challenge from a Tea Party movement-backed opponent, was spot-on when he assessed the impact of the right-wing, selectively libertarian movement. He told CNN:
Republicans lost the seats before in Nevada and New Jersey and Colorado where there were people who were claiming they wanted somebody who was more of their Tea Party aspect but they killed off the Republican majority … This is one of the reasons why we have a minority in the Senate right now.
The Tea Party movement was indeed very successful in getting a huge number of Republicans elected to the House last year, giving the GOP a majority in the chamber. And they can claim followers in the Senate, too. But there's a strong argument that the movement has harmed the GOP in the Senate and may continue to do so.
True, the Tea Party is responsible in large part for the election of Sen. Rand Paul in Kentucky. But it wasn't a pickup for the GOP, and it was quite likely that the more reasonable and distinguished Republican contender, Trey Grayson, would have won the seat as well if he had been nominated. Meanwhile, the GOP lost what would have been a shoo-in victory in Delaware, and failed to capitalize on discontent in Nevada to take the seat of Harry Reid, who remains the Senate Majority Leader.
Next year, Republicans have a very good opportunity to regain control of the Senate, given the number of vulnerable Democrats and open seats in states that are trending red. But if the statesmanlike Lugar loses his primary to a Tea Party Republican, Democrats will have an unexpected shot at a pickup in what should be a GOP state. Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown is vulnerable—not just because the leading Democrat poised to challenge him, Elizabeth Warren, is such a strong candidate, but because the Tea Party folks who helped catapult Brown to victory in a special election are not happy with the fact that Brown has been less-than-crazy in his voting patterns. Brown may still be too conservative for still very blue Massachusetts, but that's meaningless to Tea Party purists who don't believe in compromise. Rand Paul, meanwhile, made his maiden speech on the Senate floor a criticism of Kentuckian Henry Clay, known as "The Great Compromiser."
Senate majorities aren't great prizes, anyway—ask the Democrats who couldn't pass even non-controversial legislation when they had the illogically monikered "filibuster-proof" 60-member caucus. But the Tea Party movement may assure that the Republicans don't even get a non-working majority next year.
- See the GOP's top Senate targets for 2012.
- See a slide show of 14 establishment candidates who lost to insurgents.
- Read Brad Bannon: How the Tea Party Will Re-Elect Barack Obama