The Tea Party—with its flamboyant supporters and over-the-top rhetoric—makes good copy. It make such good copy that it sometimes gets more attention than its actual influence warrants. But give credit where credit is due: the Republican victory Tuesday would not have been possible without the Tea Party.
The major difference between the Republicans and the Democrats was turnout. As I wrote yesterday, because Republicans made sure to get to the polls, while many Democrats stayed home. The Republicans owe much of that enthusiasm to the angry energy of the Tea Party, which gave conservatives a movement to rally around. Perhaps just as importantly, the Tea Party gave the Republican Party a chance to rebrand itself. As Marc Ambinder points out, more Americans blame Bush for our economic problems than blame Obama. But the outsider populism of the Tea Party allowed Republican candidates to distance themselves from Bush's party, even though the party's leadership is largely the same.
But the Tea Party was a liability for the Republican Party in other ways. Tea Party candidates like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio managed to win Senate seats in Kentucky and Florida respectively. But other Tea Party nominees like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware—now best known for feeling she had to run an ad denying she was witch—were such disastrously bad candidates that they not only lost Senate seats the Republicans could have won, but became the butt of national jokes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) won reelection in spite of his being fairly unpopular in his home state by more mainstream Republican Sue Lowden in the primaries, so that he could face the erratic Angle instead.
“We didn’t field our strongest candidates,” former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) agreed, saying, “It was a good night for Republicans but it could have been a better one. We left some on the table.” Tea Party supporters grumble—with some justice—that the Republican Party could have done more to support Tea Party candidates, instead of pumping money into ultimately futile efforts to defeat Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). But Angle and O’Donnell were both exceptionally weak candidates. And if the Republicans had fielded candidates with greater mainstream appeal in Nevada and Delaware they might have been able to retake the Senate as well as the House.
The Tea Party, of course, doesn’t just want to get help Republicans win, it wants to change the direction of the Republican Party. That will inevitably be a mixed blessing for the party as a whole, and could cost the party as many votes as it gains. The party establishment worries that nominating a presidential candidate popular with the Tea Party but unappealing to moderates and independents—like Sarah Palin—could mean a repeat of the Angle and O’Donnell candidacies on a national scale, and drive America back into the hands of Obama and the Democrats.