Tests for the Tea Party on Tuesday

Emboldened by its surprise win in Alaska, the Tea Party is looking east as it keeps fighting for control of the GOP.

A poll released last week (opens in new tab) suggested that support for the Tea Party movement had peaked, falling to just 12%, but its influence remains far greater in Republican primaries, where low turnout has so far given enthusiasts an outsized role. That was the case in Alaska, where Tea Party candidate Joe Miller upended incumbent GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a primary that drew fewer than 105,000 voters. It was also true in Kentucky and Nevada, where Tea Party candidates also prevailed over establishment candidates, and it was especially the case in Utah, where only a few thousand convention delegates decided the fate of soon-to-be-former Sen. Robert Bennett.

Next up is Delaware, where nine-term GOP Rep. Mike Castle, once considered a shoo-in for the nomination and the election, is in a battle for his political life. A weekend survey (opens in new tab) from Public Policy Polling showed Castle three percentage points behind Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell, who came out of nowhere with the help of endorsements from Sarah Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and a big infusion of outside volunteers and cash. Delaware is a mostly Democratic and moderate state, and if O’Donnell is the nominee, the forecast for the Senate seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden will turn from likely Republican pickup to likely Democratic hold.

A similar fight will be decided Tuesday in New Hampshire, where state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte is staring down the surging candidacy of Ovide Lamontagne, who also has the backing of DeMint and the Tea Party Express. A recent poll (opens in new tab) showed Ayotte with a seven-point lead, but facing a good-sized chunk of undecided voters and clear signs that Lamontagne is gaining. A Tea Party victory would significantly improve Democrats’ chances of taking over the seat, now held by retiring GOP Sen. Judd Gregg.

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In New York, the Tea Party test is for governor. The favorite in the GOP primary has long been former U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio, but challenger Carl Paladino, a businessman making his first foray into politics, has picked up momentum -- again thanks to Tea Party support. And with as few as 10% of registered Republicans likely to vote, Paladino could pull off an upset. While Democrat Andrew Cuomo is widely expected to win the Nov. 2 election no matter who the Republicans nominate, a primary win by Paladino could hurt other GOP candidates. It would likely give Democrats a reason to come out and vote in November, costing Republicans some House seats in moderate swing districts.

Even Maryland, which is as blue a state as New York, faces a minor Tea Party ruckus Tuesday. Former Gov. Bob Ehrlich still seems to have a lock on the Republican gubernatorial nomination, but businessman Brian Murphy garnered lots of attention and at least some support after Palin endorsed him unexpectedly last month.

Mark Willen
Senior Political Editor, The Kiplinger Letter