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Politics

Long-Term Impact of Tea Party Wins

Anger at almost anyone and anything connected to Washington is creating the most volatile election season in decades.

Convincing primary wins for conservative Tea Party-backed candidates in Delaware and New York sent shock waves through the Republican Party and set the stage for a surely tumultuous and dramatic November election. They also raised new questions about the role of the party -- and who will control it -- in the crucial two years before the 2012 presidential election.

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While Republicans stand every chance of making significant gains in Congress in November -- probably retaking the House and gaining six or more seats in the Senate -- the success on Tuesday night of outsider, dark horse GOP candidates reveals a fracture in the Republican base and grass roots that’s unlikely to be easily healed before or after November. It could well bubble over next year as the GOP has more leverage in Congress and as some Tea Party-heralded newcomers pull the party apparatus farther to the right.

The effect may be to solidify the more conservative pillar of the Republican Party, one less willing to compromise for fear of being punished in the next election -- even if it is to the long-term detriment of the party. One winner last night was Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), a Tea Party champion who has repeatedly defied party leaders, including Mitch McConnell (R-KY), by backing rebel conservatives.

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The victory in the Senate GOP primary in Delaware by Christine O’Donnell, the definition of an outsider fringe candidate only weeks ago, over Rep. Mike Castle, a political legend in Delaware for 40 years, is both stunning and revealing. Conservative Republicans fed up with anything close to business as usual and frustrated by government bailouts, the stimulus, deficits and the like preferred to risk defeat in November rather than go with a candidate who represented the old order. The win also represented a spreading of Tea Party influence beyond strongly leaning Republican states such as Utah, Kentucky and Alaska.

Castle, who had won 12 statewide elections and knew every hamlet of the small-population state, was considered likely to win the Democratic seat held by Vice President Joe Biden for 36 years. But that hardly seemed to play into the calculation of O’Donnell supporters in the closed primary, where only registered Republicans could vote. Although she faces a decidedly uphill struggle to defeat Democrat Chris Coons, a popular county executive, in November, frustrated Republican voters rallied to her anyway, content to send a message or maybe convinced that the majority -- even in this very Democratic and traditionally moderate state -- will come around to their point of view eventually.

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It was true also in New York, where Tea Party-backed Carl Paladino, a conservative, wealthy Buffalo businessman, who stoked anger at the Republican state party establishment, convincingly beat ex-Rep. Rick Lazio, the establishment candidate, for the nomination for governor. Paladino has even less of a chance than Lazio to defeat Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo in November, but again that hardly mattered to Paladino’s Tea Party backers. They were far more interested in sending a rebellious message of frustration.

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The Tuesday night wins have an immediate rippling effect, adding some new wind and momentum for other Tea Party-backed Republican candidates, such as Marco Rubio in Florida, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Ken Buck in Colorado and Sharron Angle in Nevada.

General elections are far different from primaries, which attract a tiny percentage of voters, and Tea Party candidates will have to appeal to a wider audience in November. But the enthusiasm and excitement are clearly on their side. Democrats are generally rejoicing this morning, feeling the nomination of far-right candidates makes their job easier in November. But that will only be true if more moderate voters show up on Nov. 2.

Come Nov. 3, two things are certain: Republicans will have made significant gains, and Tea Party activism will have made a mark. The arrival of even a small band of Tea Party candidates in the Senate in November -- who will no doubt be heralded by the grass roots nationally -- will cause more to think about mounting challenges in 2012 and force incumbents to begin working early to appeal to the Tea Party sympathizers.

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