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.
Second is the question of how, and whether, such a disconnected army can make a real difference in governing. Polls show that more Americans than not are turned off by the tea party, with many viewing the movement as extreme.
The tea party movement fared better among voters who came out on Tuesday, according to exit polls. Nationally, 40 percent of those who voted Tuesday said they support the tea party, and 23 percent of voters said their vote for the U.S. House was an indication of their support for the tea party movement. Eighteen percent said their Congressional vote was a vote against the tea party. The majority of voters said the tea party was not a factor in their Congressional vote.
U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that most voters have "grave reservations" about tea party candidates, some of whom were recruited by Palin, one of the movement's most visible figures.
"That's causing great concern to voters from moderate swing districts, because those voters aren't looking for right wing ideologues. They're looking for centrist problem-solvers," Van Hollen said.
Across the country on Tuesday, tea party organizers, in addition to well-funded, national conservative leaders, took a different view. They celebrated their wins and claimed the tea party deserved credit for the increase in the number of conservatives elected to Congress.
Jason Hoyt, the director of the Central Florida Tea Party Council Orlando, said Rubio will be a great senator.
"The tea party movement around the state did a good job by getting behind him, by supporting him early and sending a message to Charlie Crist that we didn't want his moderate middle-of-the-road wishy-washy politics," Hoyt said.
Hoyt and his compatriots were figuring out what to do with the big "Mission Accomplished" banner they had made to celebrate former Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster's defeat of Rep. Alan Grayson (D). "I guess we were pretty confident," he said sheepishly.
At Rand Paul's victory party in the new senator's adopted home town of Bowling Green, Ky., Fred Barkey, 67, a retired executive, said he thought Paul's tea party stature would empower Paul to lead efforts to slash welfare and social security spending.
"He's going to have a lot of influence on the rest of the Republican party, because he's a national figure," Barkey said.
Landon Thompson, 58, who was also at Paul's party, said he and his wife, Barbara, had gone to Washington to protest the health-care overhaul bill and hoped it now would be repealed. Paul's victory indicated something new, he said.
"For one, I'll settle in my mind that the Constitution will be looked at seriously... and respected," Thompson said.
In a haze of cigarette smoke at the Doylestown Moose Lodge in eastern Pennsylvania on Tuesday night, a few tea party supporters and Republicans formed a conga line and belted out the lines of an old Twisted Sister hit. As election returns showed projected wins by Paul and other tea party-supported candidates, the celebrants sang out their opposition to the policies of Democrats and the Obama administration: "We're not gonna take it anymore!"
The Kitchen Table Patriots, which threw the party, celebrated victories of Republicans Pat Toomey for Senate and Mike Fitzpatrick for the 8th District House seat.
Kathy Posnett, a retired secretary, logged more than 5,500 calls on a phone bank to help make it happen.
"I kept thinking of my daughter," Posnett said. "I didn't want her to pay off the stimulus. This is just so awesome. Murphy voted with Pelosi 70 percent of the time. It made me ill. Now he got his."
Staff writers Darryl Fears in Pennsylvania, David Farenthold in Kentucky, Annie Gowen in Florida, and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.