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.
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