Victories give force to tea party movement

Americans cast their ballots Tuesday in House, Senate and statewide races.
By Krissah Thompson and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 2:15 AM

The tea party celebrated decisive victories on Tuesday night, proving that it has matured from a protest movement into a powerful force for political change.

On Tuesday evening, the movement claimed its first wins in the Senate, as Republican Rand Paul defeated Attorney General Jack Conway (D) in Kentucky and the GOP's Marco Rubio claimed Florida. Later in the night, tea-party backed Pat Toomey defeated Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania.

Sen. Jim Demint (R-SC), who has been a leader of the tea party movement, endorsing candidates and raising money for their campaigns, called the wins part of an "awakening going on in our country."

The victories, while significant, were offset by some big losses: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid held onto his seat after a tough Nevada race against Republican Sharron Angle. Democrat Chris Coons grabbed a double-digit win over tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell in Delaware. And in West Virginia, Democrat Joe Manchin beat back a strong challenge from Republican John Raese.

Still tea party candidates and supporters found much to celebrate, calling their wins a mandate for change in Washington.

"We've come to take our government back," Paul said during his victory speech. "The American people are not happy with what's going on in Washington. Tonight there is a tea party tidal wave, and we're sending a message to them. It's a message that I will carry with me on day one. It's a message of fiscal sanity, a message of limited government and balanced budgets."

Paul, a tea party activist and son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), a former presidential candidate, won a tough Republican primary where he challenged a candidate backed by his party's top leaders. He excited tea party supporters this summer at his campaign stops, which were feisty affairs heavy on a populist call to arms against what he describes as Washington's unsustainable spending, crippling debt, career politicians, a "socialist" health-care law and a failure to close the nation's borders to illegal immigrants.

Rubio, who emerged early on as a marquee tea party-backed candidate, beat incumbent Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who ran as an independent, and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D). In his acceptance speech, the newly elected senator warned that wins by tea party-backed candidates should not be taken as a sign of support for Republicans.

"The stories are being written about what this election is about," Rubio said. "We know that a growing number of Republicans will be elected to the Senate. We make a great mistake if we believe that these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party. What they are is a second chance."

In Delaware, O'Donnell blew Republican chances to pick up Vice President Biden's former Senate seat. After being endorsed by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, O'Donnell caught the media spotlight and picked up a surprise primary win over moderate U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle in that state's GOP primary. Despite her loss, O'Donnell said the Republican party will never be the same. "And that's a good thing," she said. "Our voices were heard. This is just the beginning."

The tea party effort, which has captured attention with its dramatic, sometimes angry displays of conservative, anti-government fervor, proved its ability to sway Republican primaries in other stunning upsets this year, in Utah, Nevada and Alaska.

Still, uncertainties remain. First is the finding, in a Washington Post canvass conducted last month, that local tea party groups are less organized and politically active than previously thought. Much of the grass-roots organization that swayed primaries was coordinated and financed by large national groups led by Republican insiders, including FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Express and Americans for Prosperity.

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