WASHINGTON — Voters embraced the tea party's conservative throw-the-bums-out anthem in key races across the country, with the movement's favored candidates taking more than a dozen House seats held by Democrats, three Senate races and the South Carolina governorship.
The movement did not make a complete sweep despite a strong anti-Democratic climate, with the most prominent losses coming from tea party stars Christine O'Donnell of Delaware and Sharron Angle of Nevada. Angle couldn't overcome Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and O'Donnell was soundly defeated after old videos emerged of her discussing witchcraft, masturbation and mice with human brains.
But tea party heroes Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida were elected to the Senate, while Sarah Palin-backed Republican Nikki Haley was elected South Carolina governor. All were long shots when they declared their candidacies but won over voters with their Washington outsider, anti-tax campaigns.
"We've come to take our government back," said Paul, a first-time candidate and son of libertarian hero Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. He promised to lead a movement for fiscal sanity, limited constitutional government and balanced budgets and to begin working to build a tea party caucus in the Senate first thing Wednesday morning.
"There's a tea party tidal wave, and we're sending a message," Paul said.
Tea Party Patriots co-founder JennyBeth Martin said local activists from across the country would host a meeting for freshmen lawmakers Nov. 14 to remind them that the movement's continuing support depends on their performance.
"We've watched what's happened in the past — Republican or Democrats promise things when they are running, and then they get to Washington and they do what their party leadership wants them to," she said from a victory party at a Washington hotel. "We're not going to let that happen this time. If they uphold our core values and the Constitution, then they will have political backing from us. If not, we'll do this again in two years."
Tea party candidates were running strong as returns came in Wednesday morning, picking up several Democratic seats in the Republican takeover of the House. Chief among them was Republican Vicky Hartzler, who courted tea party support in her victory over House Armed Service Committee Chairman Ike Skelton. She ended Skelton's 34 years in Congress.
Republicans with tea party support also defeated Democratic incumbents in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, South Dakota and two seats each in New York and Illinois. And they picked up seats held by retiring Democrats in Louisiana, Washington, Wisconsin, Michigan and two in Arkansas.
The question for Election Day was whether the tea party candidates would end up hurting the Republican Party more than they helped by putting up some less viable candidates. That appeared to be the case in the Nevada Senate race and in Delaware, where tea party-fueled candidacies for O'Donnell and Glen Urquhart for the state's Republican-held House seat gave Democrats easy victories that wouldn't have been expected early in the campaign.
Democrats were able to hold onto the Colorado governorship after tea party-backed GOP nominee Dan Maes' campaign imploded and third-party candidate Tom Tancredo entered the race and splintered the support of the state's activists. But fears that other third-party tea party candidates would siphon voters from Republican nominees were unfounded elsewhere.
Rubio, Paul and tea party Republican Mike Lee of Utah were elected to seats held by Republicans, so they did not contribute to GOP hopes for gains in the Senate. And Republican leaders may get a challenge from tea party lawmakers who vowed to put their conservative principles before party.
"Our nation is headed in the wrong direction and both parties are to blame," said Rubio, a former state House speaker and son of Cuban exiles. He said his election was part of "a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be not so long ago."
Rep. John Boehner, who planned to take over as speaker after Republicans won the House, assured tea party activists from his Ohio district in a Skype call after poll closing that he would never let them down, Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said.
Candidates with tea party support were on the ballot in more than 70 House districts, seven races for Senate and three for governor. Some were incumbents, such as South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson. Wilson became an early hero to tea partiers for yelling "You lie!" to President Barack Obama during a joint session of Congress, and held onto his seat in a race that was infused with out-of-state donations for both sides after the heckle.
Four in 10 voters considered themselves tea party supporters, according to preliminary exit poll results. And nearly 9 in 10 of those tea party supporters voted for the Republican House candidate.
But the tea party also was a polarizing force among some voters — about a quarter of voters said they considered their vote a message of support for the tea party and nearly as many said their vote was meant to signal opposition to the movement. About half said the tea party wasn't a factor.
The movement's candidates had no unified agenda, but often pushed for a balanced budget, elimination of the federal debt, repeal of the health care law and strict interpretation of the Constitution. The AP's polling analysis found nearly 9 in 10 tea party supporters wanted to repeal health care and felt Obama's policies hurt the country. Only about a quarter of non-tea party supporters felt that way.
Tea party candidates weren't always easy to identify since the movement is a network of loosely connected community groups — not an established political party with official nominees. Even within the tea party there often was disagreement among rival groups about the legitimacy of candidates claiming tea party credentials.
In identifying candidates, The Associated Press assessed factors including a candidate's history with the movement, the involvement of local leaders and activists in a campaign, endorsements or support from tea party-affiliated groups and whether a candidate is running on a platform that dovetails with the movement's agenda.