07/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tea Party Midterm Update

Three states held Republican primary elections yesterday, which makes it a good time to check in on the Tea Party and their preferred candidates, to see how things now stand (as well as where they could head), as we get closer to the midterm elections in November.

Now, the nebulous nature of who, exactly, is a "Tea Party candidate" -- as well as the decentralized nature of the Tea Party movement itself -- make it all but impossible to spot overall trends, or to make nationwide predictions. Some Tea Party candidates are self-professed Tea Partiers, but even some of these are rejected by Tea Party groups in their states. This leads to much confusion over who really is, and who is not, a Tea Party candidate. To complicate matters even further, everything changes from state to state, and from Tea Party group to Tea Party group. But even with those caveats, it's interesting to see how it is all playing out at the state level, mostly in contests for the U.S. Senate.

Florida is, to date, the biggest Tea Party success story. But it likely won't be the only one, when the dust settles on the Republican primary season. Marco Rubio successfully shoved Republican Governor Charlie Crist not just out of the Republican primary, but out of the Republican Party altogether. This may wind up being a Pyrrhic victory for him (and the Tea Partiers), if Crist is ultimately victorious in his Independent run against Rubio in the general election. Polls taken after Crist's announcement that he was going to attempt "pulling off a Lieberman" show Crist with a slight edge over Rubio, with the Democratic candidate trailing both. It remains to be seen whether Crist can hold this edge or not until November, of course, but Crist beating Rubio would be a big blow to the Tea Partiers. As with most of these candidates, some Tea Partiers even deny Rubio is one of them, I should add. The media, though, seem to have dubbed him the "Tea Party candidate" in the race -- which Rubio has welcomed -- so make of that what you will.

Indiana, Ohio, and North Carolina all held primaries yesterday, and they were all bad news for Tea Party candidates, as "establishment Republican" candidates won the day across the board. In Indiana, Dan Coats won a brutal three-way race against two Tea Party candidates (one of whom even had the endorsement of Ron Paul), but he did so with less than 40 percent of the vote. An established House Republican, Dan Burton, successfully fended off challengers in his primary, but won his race with less than 30 percent of the vote. In North Carolina, Senator Richard Burr easily won his primary, which is good news for him because Democrats may have a solid chance against him in the fall. In Ohio, Rob Portman won his primary as well. Meaning that none of the Tea Party challengers were able to wrest the GOP nomination away from establishment Republican candidates.

In upcoming races, Tea Party candidates have mixed chances as well. California's Tea Party candidate for the Republican nomination (to take on sitting Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer) has seen his chances dwindle. Chuck DeVore, who was supposed to lead some sort of Tea Party upwelling in the Golden State, has barely cracked double digits in polling against the other two Republicans in the race. Part of the reason for this is that one of those candidates jumped from running for Governor to running for the Senate after facing Meg Whitman's bottomless checkbook. Tom Campbell -- a very moderate Republican -- is now leading Carly Fiorina in the polls, with DeVore struggling to get his numbers into the teens. But Fiorina has a pretty big checkbook herself, so this race is still wide open. Unfortunately for the Tea Partiers, it is only wide open between Campbell and Fiorina -- DeVore's chances of winning the nomination are about nil, right now.

Next door in Arizona, however, the Tea Party has a better chance. John McCain is in the primary fight of his life right now, and is tacking about as far right as he can in his attempt to fend off Tea Party favorite J.D. Hayworth. While polls from Arizona are all over the map, it seems McCain is holding a fairly comfortable edge right now, but who knows what will happen on primary day? Currently, both candidates are trying to milk the new Arizona immigration law for as much political benefit as they can manage. Even if the Tea Party candidate loses here, they have successfully forced McCain to hew a lot further to the right, which they may see as a victory of some sort or another.

In Utah, though, the Tea Partiers seem to be on the verge of successfully pulling off a "coup" from within the Republican Party. Utah doesn't have primary elections where voters choose party candidates. Instead, there is a meeting of party delegates, who vote for the nominee. And if, in the first round of this voting, a candidate doesn't get 40 percent of the vote, he or she is out of the race. This is likely to happen this weekend to the sitting (and very conservative) Republican Senator Bob Bennett.

The upcoming race which Tea Partiers are most excited about, however, is Kentucky -- since their preferred candidate is none other than Rand Paul, son of the aforementioned Ron Paul. So far, Paul seems to be absolutely crushing his opponent, which is especially embarassing to Washington Republicans, since their Senate Minority Leader (Mitch McConnell, also from Kentucky) hand-picked the establishment GOP candidate in the race. But Kentucky voters aren't in the mood for Mitch to tell them who to vote for, it seems, and the smart money in this race is that Rand Paul walks away with it.

Yesterday's primaries could be bad news for Democrats in Ohio, Indiana, and North Carolina, however, as Republican turnout was up across the board, and Democratic turnout was down. Now, these are just primaries, but it is still proof of the "enthusiasm gap" between Democratic voters and Republicans, which could be very bad news indeed for Democrats come the fall.

Or, maybe, it won't. Because the big unanswered question is whether the Tea Partiers can maintain their enthusiasm in November -- especially when "their candidate" isn't even on the ballot anymore. Or, more ominously for Republicans perhaps, what these defeated candidates will do now -- gracefully leave the field, or run as a Tea Party candidate in the fall, creating a three-way race.

We already have one three-way race in Florida, where the Tea Partier could win, lose to the Independent, or even split the vote so effectively that the Democrat wins. What would happen in a state like Indiana if one of the Tea Party candidates decides to make a run as a third-party candidate in the general election (I have to note, some states don't even allow this, and I have not checked whether it's even legal to do so in Indiana)? Seemingly, because the Tea Partier couldn't even get a plurality of the Republican vote, they wouldn't have much chance in the general, but consider that with two Tea Party candidates in the Indiana primary, the Tea Party vote may have been split, and may prove to be stronger than expected. Or what would happen if a Republican forced out of the race (McCain, or Bennett, for instance) decided to go the Charlie Crist route and run in the general as an Independent?

Even a marginal Tea Party candidate in the general race can have a big "spoiler" effect. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's best chance of avoiding defeat by his Republican opponent this fall may be if the Tea Party candidate in the race pulls enough of the vote to deny the Republican the win.

What all of this means, as I said at the beginning, is pretty much open to interpretation. Perhaps the Tea Party voters will rally around the Republican nominees in November, or perhaps they will stay home in disgust at their candidate being defeated. Perhaps even having a three-way race (as in Florida) will allow for a Tea Party candidate victory, because they will only need slightly more than one-third of the vote to win in such a contest, if the votes are spread fairly evenly -- far less than they'd need in a two-person race.

What will most likely happen is that the Tea Party folks win a few and lose a few. This may be due to the available choice of candidates in any one particular race, or it may manifest itself as a state-by-state phenomenon, due to the decentralized nature of the movement itself. What this all means for Democrats' chances in the general election are equally as murky. Perhaps the Democrats can win some races they probably wouldn't have, due to the presence of two opponents. And perhaps they won't be able to capitalize on the situation because the Tea Party folks turn out to the polls in droves, while Democratic voters stay home.

The only thing which does seem certain at this point is that the Tea Party movement has definitely had an influence on the Republican Party. Current Republican officeholders who don't even identify themselves as part of the Tea Party movement are now being very careful not to say or do anything which would raise the Tea Party's ire towards them. Meaning the Republican Party, as a whole, is undeniably being dragged even further right by the Tea Partiers. In an anti-incumbent year, this may help both the Tea Partiers and Republicans win seats in Congress this fall, especially in the House (which I've barely mentioned here). Outside of the short term, however, it remains to be seen whether this is a good move for the Republican Party in elections to follow, because the Tea Partiers' insistence on purist ideology may shrink the party's appeal (especially to moderate and independent voters) in the long run. Either way, it's definitely going to be an interesting election season to watch.


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