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Early portents of Tea Party power came in the form of Massachusetts junior senator Scott Brown, who assumed “liberal lion” Ted Kennedy’s seat in the January 2010 special election, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the first Republican governor to be elected in New Jersey in 12 years. Both enjoyed a wellspring of support from Tea Party activists within and outside their respective states. From this standpoint, the 2010 midterm election looked like it would be a good year for conservatives.
Few predicted that the election would be as historic as it actually was, surpassing even the “Gingrich Revolution” of the 1990s. In terms of immediate political success, however, the impact of the Tea Party was a wild card in some cases. While candidates like Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Nikki Haley, governor-elect of South Carolina, were able to use Tea Party support to beat not only their liberal opponents in the election, but their Republican establishment opponents in the primaries, others, such as Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, Sharon Angle of Nevada, and Joe Miller of Alaska could not manage the same success. In these cases, personal foibles and eccentricities played a significant role in their defeat.
Although the Tea Party may have been an obstacle to conservative victory in select races, if the conservative voter “enthusiasm gap” can be identified with the Tea Party phenomenon, and indeed, conservative Tea Party supporters were by far the most enthusiastic voters in the midterm election, then the presence of the Tea Party was an overall boon to the Republican Party. The charge that “less electable” Tea Party candidates may have cost Republicans a few seats is unfortunate (if true), but it is overshadowed by a new competitiveness among conservative candidates and that, as conservatives say, makes us better.
The Tea Party has also helped bring much needed aesthetic diversity to the face of conservatism — and serious new political talent to the fore. The favored liberal characterization of the GOP, which was regrettably presented in excelsis by 2008 presidential contender John McCain, was “pale, stale, and male.” This image was shattered during the 2010 midterm election by a much more diverse stock of high profile candidates, either in gubernatorial or congressional races. Many of these individuals may have serious political futures ahead of them. South Carolina governor-elect Nikki Haley exacted a huge upset over not just her Democratic opponent, but also many in the SC Republican establishment. Haley faced serious opposition in the gubernatorial primary, but was a Tea Party favorite. Rising star Marco Rubio, the “un-Obama,” was largely supported by Tea Party forces, and made short work of both Obama-ally, incumbent Kendrick Meek and the (presumably) top Florida GOP leader, Governor Charles Crist. Rubio’s political gifts cannot be overstated, and the maturity of his political career will be fascinating to watch.
The 2010 election proved the Tea Party’s strength. In many ways, the movement has done enough to fall complacently back into slumber. So, what is on the horizon for the Tea Party? Does the it have the fortitude to face President Obama head on in 2012? Most of the front-runners for 2012 GOP presidential candidates — Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin — fall short of the adequate support needed to defeat Obama. Yet, recall the low opinion Tea Party supporters generally had of John McCain (and his party). If Tea Partiers can maintain movement enthusiasm, and if an actually inspiring candidate emerges, President Obama has every reason to be concerned. The battle for the presidency in 2012 will likely be very competitive.
Commentator Arthur Brooks has described the Tea Party as a new front of a culture war. “America [can] continue to be an exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise — limited government, a reliance on entrepreneurship and rewards determined by market forces,” Brooks said in the Washington Post, “[or] America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution. These visions are not reconcilable. We must choose.” The problem is, the Tea Party notwithstanding, the outcome of this war is nowhere certain. Even under Republican leadership, the size and scope of government has increased every year. The government spends more, controls more, takes more. And to some extent, polls have shown, the populace is in favor of this direction. Can it be stopped? Or are we inevitably headed toward European decline? Perhaps most importantly, the Tea Party represents the hope that our fate of joining the other corpses of Westernism is not sealed — that we will always be a society that protests for the government to do less and not more. As recent events have shown, there is plenty of room for optimism.
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