WASHINGTON — Tea party-backed candidates helped and hindered Republicans, injecting enthusiasm into campaigns but losing Senate seats held by Democrats in Delaware, Colorado and Nevada that the GOP once had big hopes of capturing.
Republican leaders and strategists are muttering that the same tea party activists who elevated Speaker-to-be John Boehner and the party to power in the House simultaneously hobbled the GOP's outside shot of running the Senate. Tea partiers largely spurned establishment candidates in the GOP primaries and helped nominate Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado.
All three lost on Tuesday.
"You let the voters decide" the nominees, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said Friday. "It's a risk. Voting is a risk."
Republicans won Senate races in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. That put them within three seats of a 50-50 split. In the case, Vice President Joe Biden would have broken the tie and allowed Democrats to retain their majority.
If they could have managed a split, however, Republicans would have pushed hard to switch some lawmakers, with the likely target Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. He's an independent who votes with the Democrats but strongly supported Republican John McCain's 2008 presidential bid. Others considered Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota a possibility.
All those what-ifs fell apart, though, in three states.
In Delaware, tea party activists rallied behind O'Donnell over nine-term moderate Republican Rep. Mike Castle. Party leaders tried to crush O'Donnell; the state party chairman said she could not be elected dogcatcher, much less a senator.
Voters went with O'Donnell and Republican officials in Washington largely abandoned the race. There were revelations about financial troubles and the emergence of TV footage in which she spoke out against masturbation and talked about dabbling in witchcraft as a teenager.
On Friday, she blamed Washington Republicans for her loss to Democrat Chris Coons.
"In just the six weeks that we had, if we didn't have that network, that machine, mechanism to plug into like other candidates did, we had to spend the time rebuilding that, establishing the grass-roots network to get out the vote," she told NBC's "Today" show. "And also defending the accusations that even my own party was putting out. So it was too heavy of a lift for one entity."
In Nevada, voters nominated Angle to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who had to overcome low approval ratings and the state's high unemployment. They rejected state lawmaker Sue Lowden, who was considered a more polished candidate and was a state party chairwoman – too much of an establishment credential for voters looking for something new.
Angle was dogged by missteps. She told a group of Hispanic students they looked Asian, drew ridicule for avoiding reporters and suggested a "militant terrorist situation" has allowed Islamic religious law to take hold in some American cities.
"My thoughts are these, first of all, Dearborn, Michigan, and Frankford, Texas, are on American soil, and under constitutional law. Not Sharia law. And I don't know how that happened in the United States," she said. "It seems to me there is something fundamentally wrong with allowing a foreign system of law to even take hold in any municipality or government situation in our United States."
Dearborn has a thriving Muslim community. It was not immediately clear why Angle singled out Frankford, which was annexed into Dallas around 1975.
Unlike in Delaware, national Republicans and their allies stood with Angle and waged a bruising campaign that came up short against Reid.
In Colorado, Republicans nominated tea party favorite Ken Buck over Lt. Gov. Jane Norton. Republicans hoped Norton would have an easy race against Sen. Michael Bennet, appointed to the seat that Ken Salazar vacated when he stepped down to become President Barack Obama's interior secretary.
"Did they help Ken Buck win the nomination? You bet," said Colorado Republican Party chairman Dick Wadhams. "Were they responsible for his defeat? Absolutely not."
Bennet, a former school superintendent, had never been elected statewide and Democrats readied for a tough campaign against Norton, a former Reagan and George H.W. Bush administration official.
Buck, a district attorney, proved an easier opponent. Although he had tea party backing, he also had expressed views that Democrats seized on to peel away enough voters, mostly women who disagreed with his comments on rape and abortion.
While Wadhams said he "can only deal with the reality of what happened," he also noted voters gave Republicans two new House members – the first time since 1964 that Colorado ousted two Democratic incumbents in the same year – and picked up the state House. They also gave Bennet a narrow 15,000-vote victory out of almost 1.7 million ballots cast.