WASHINGTON — If the 2010 Republican sweep of the House signaled the rise of the Tea Party, then the 2012 election cemented the movement’s momentum despite several key losses, said scholars and Tea Party leaders.
Tea Party movement-backed candidates lost to Democrats in Indiana and Missouri, among other states, undermining Republican chances of seizing control of the Senate. But the Tea Party’s mantra of uncompromising fiscal conservatism and limited government will echo beyond this election cycle, continuing to threaten the political careers of Republicans who dare stray from the agenda or reach across the aisle, experts say.
“Some Democrats say the Tea Party is dead. That’s all baloney,” said Brigitte Nacos, a political science professor at Columbia University whose research focuses on the four-year-old movement. “The fact of the matter is when you look at the basic agenda of the Republican ticket, it’s pretty much what the Tea Party likes.”
The Tea Party has stamped its impact on the entire Republican ticket from House and Senate races up to the presidency, prompting once-moderate Mitt Romney to bend so far to the right during the primaries that he vowed to repeal the federal version of the very health care law he championed as governor of Massachusetts.
The entire presidential debate was set by the Tea Party, said Mark Meckler, cofounder of Tea Party Patriots.
“Literally, there is no alternative,” Meckler said. “President Obama was forced in the debates to call himself the president of reining in big government. That was unthinkable four years ago. The entire nature of the debate in the United States has changed because of the Tea Party movement.”
Romney’s loss on Tuesday will no doubt prompt soul-searching for Republicans and launch a fight over the party’s future, Nacos said.
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a Tea Party group, said the movement’s supporters feel more empowered than ever to set the national agenda and influence the workings of Capitol Hill, given the looming “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax cuts and mandatory budget cuts, not to mention another debt ceiling debate.
“We’re sort of past the days where we’ve sat idly by waiting for the chief executive to do the right thing,” Kibbe said.
Democrats branded Republican rivals for congressional seats as Tea Party extremists bent on destroying Medicare, Social Security, and universal health care and blamed them for the partisan gridlock that has plagued Congress.
Still, a third of Americans view the Tea Party movement favorably, according to a September Washington Post/ABC News poll.
Recent history shows that conservative Republican voters who align themselves with the Tea Party are more than ready to hold their congressmen hostage to their agenda by threatening to replace them during the primaries.
“That’s really their weapon. If you’re not going to do what they expect you to do, then next time they are going to mount a primary fight against you,” said Nacos, of a movement that rose to power by tapping into fomenting angst and anger amid the economic downturn and Obama’s election in 2008.
Sal Russo, cofounder and chief strategist of Tea Party Express, said the movement has no reason to shoulder any blame for Republican Senate losses.
In Indiana, Tea Party-backed Richard Mourdock, who beat longtime Republican moderate Senator Richard Lugar in the primary, lost Tuesday to Democratic challenger Joe Donnelly.
“If he loses, it will be because of an intemperate remark he made, not because of the fiscal views supported by the Tea Party,” said Russo before votes were tallied, referring to Mourdock’s botched explanation during a debate of his antiabortion stance in which he said that even life resulting from rape is “something God intended to happen.”
In Missouri, Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, staved off a challenge by Representative Todd Akin, a Tea Party candidate whose remarks on “legitimate rape” cost him critical votes.
In the House, Democrat Tammy Duckworth of Illinois beat Republican incumbent Joe Walsh.
As of late last night, several Tea Party races were still too close to call. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former presidential candidate who created the House Tea Party caucus, was locked in a close fight, as was Allen West of Florida, another leader of the Tea Party caucus, and Representative Frank Guinta, Republican of New Hampshire.
“These are people who are now being held accountable to a particular set of values,” Meckler said. If their votes don’t align with the Tea Party platform, he said, “they will be unceremoniously removed.”