In an election where Democrats held onto the White House and fortified their Senate majority, the fledgling tea party movement had a mixed bag of results.
The 2010 election, and many of President Barack Obama's clashes with the Congress that election produced, were defined by the ascendance of tea party-backed lawmakers devoted to shrinking government and undoing Obama's legislative agenda. A quick look at the Tea Party Caucus, launched in July 2010 by Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, shows that the majority of tea party Republicans held on to their House seats.
Of the 60 lawmakers who were members of the caucus as of July 2011, 48 retained their seats. And of the 12 seats that will have new representatives, six will still be occupied by Republicans. Those include freshman lawmakers who unseated Republican incumbents in the primaries (Ted Yoho ousted 24-year incumbent Cliff Stearns in Florida) and incumbents who were obliged to vacate their seats as they ran for higher office (although Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri failed in his Senate bid, for example, Republican Ann Wagner will take over his old House seat).
To be sure, there were some key losses for the tea party movement. It lost some of its most visible and controversial standard-bearers, as Allen West of Florida and Joe Walsh of Illinois -- both of whom polarized voters with their inflammatory critiques of the Obama administration -- lost their re-election bids. Sandy Adams of Florida joined West and Walsh as freshmen who were booted after serving just one term. Bachmann herself only won re-election very narrowly.
But those three were outliers when it came to the fortunes of tea party freshmen. Fourteen of the 17 tea party caucus members elected in 2010 prevailed in 2012, partially belying predictions that the tea party wave would swiftly recede.
In the Senate, tea party-affiliated candidates generally fared poorly. The Huffington Post notes that 12 of the 16 Senate candidates endorsed by the Tea Party Express, one of the fragmented movement’s leading organizations, lost their races. That includes newcomers like Richard Mourdock of Indiana, who toppled incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in the primary by running to Lugar’s right and disdaining compromise with Democrats, but lost the general election after inflammatory comments about rape.
The tea party remains a decentralized movement, defined more by a commitment to limited government than by membership in formal organization. In that sense, its potency is better assessed through the Republican Party’s legislative accomplishments.
Viewed from that angle, the tea party could be heading for a reckoning in the form of a deal to avert the looming “fiscal cliff.” Tea party-aligned lawmakers helped force last summer’s stalemate over raising the debt ceiling, staunchly refusing any deficit-reduction compromise that involved raising new tax revenue.