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Tea party offers GOP a mixed bag

November 3, 2010

Tea Party Mixed Results(AP) - In its first major electoral test, the tea party proved its value to the Republican party Tuesday night -- mobilizing support and electing a new crop of political leaders. But the final results also placed some weaknesses of tea party candidates on full display.

The GOP won majority control of the House but not the Senate, and some Republicans were quick to blame the tea party for the failure to clinch both chambers in an election trending strongly against the Democratic majorities in Congress.

"The Tea Party has helped in the House -- [but] probably cost us the Senate," longtime Republican campaign guru Stu Spencer told the New York Daily News Tuesday.

Losses in the Delaware and Nevada Senate races kept the GOP from winning a Senate majority even though both races were opportunities for Republicans to pick up key gains.

In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had always been a major GOP target. Republicans had always prepared to invest heavily in a race against Reid, given the significance of knocking out a powerful Democratic leader in his home state. But having tea party candidate Sharron Angle as their nominee was not part of the Republicans' plan.

Republicans originally backed former state party chairwoman Sue Lowden for the race, but Angle beat her this summer in a surprise primary win.

Angle ran a conservative campaign that caused many detractors to characterize her as an extremist -- and Reid used this image to his advantage. Reid labeled Angle "crazy," "dangerous," and "extreme" in his ads, and by his own account, the strategy of persistently pushing Angle's image as a fringe figure worked.

Dave Weigel reported for Slate that Reid believes  his message resonated with many voters, including key Republicans. "They do not want a Republican Party with her [Angle's] brand on it," Reid said. "They want a Republican Party that is one like their mother's and father's Republican Party, one that Ronald Reagan would support or the first George Bush would support."

In Delaware, much the same dynamic played out -- again to the detriment of the GOP's fortunes in the general election. Republicans wanted former Rep. Mike Castle, an established statewide GOP leader, to vie for the open Senate seat. But tea party candidate Christine O'Donnell took the primary in an upset and went on to lose handily in Tuesday's election.

So would Castle have fared better?

Sarah Palin, an O'Donnell support, argues he wouldn't. "When given a choice, why in the world would I have supported" Mike Castle, Palin said on "Fox News Sunday" on Oct. 31. "Who was going to guarantee Castle was going to win?" she asked host Chris Wallace.

But others argue that if any Republican could have clinched a win in a statewide general election in Delaware, it was Castle, who had  won statewide elections 12 times in his political career.

In Alaska, meanwhile, the Senate race remained too close call Wednesday morning. In the GOP primary, incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski was ousted by tea party candidate Joe Miller. But Murkowski elected to wage a write-in campaign against her former GOP opponent.

Murkowski led in early results -- and Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, the Democrat in the race, attributed her initial advantage to the tea party's influence.

"A lot of people have recognized that the tea party movement does not represent them," McAdams said on MSNBC.

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