The Tea Party grabbed the limelight and a seat at the table in Washington DC on Tuesday night, when some of the movement’s favoured candidates triumphed in midterm elections amid broader Republican gains.
Rand Paul, one of the movement’s most prominent supporters, declared a “Tea Party tidal wave” as he won the open Senate seat for Kentucky. In another striking result, Marco Rubio of Florida triumphed with more than 50 per cent of the vote in his Senate race, easily seeing off Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor.
According to an Associated Press exit poll, about four out of 10 voters said they backed the movement, which calls for the drastic reductions for the powers of the US federal government and has been championed by Sarah Palin, former Republican vice presidential nominee.
But other candidates fared less well than the trend – including Christine O’Donnell, who lost the Senate race for Delaware amid Democratic claims she was too offbeat and rightwing.
Harry Reid triumphed over Sharron Angle in Nevada’s Senate race in one of the closest campaigns of the season.
Analysts suggested that while the enthusiasm generated by Tea Party supporters had helped the Republicans win control of the House of Representatives, it may have limited their gains in the Senate.
The movement’s political clout is also yet to be decided, with mixed signals over whether there will be a separate Tea Party bloc in Congress.
Dick Armey, the Tea Party activist and chairman of FreedomWorks, which backed candidates such as Mr Rubio, said in an interview with the Financial Times that the grassroots conservative movement would have a profound impact not only on the presidential contest in 2012, but in the election that followed.
While Mr Armey insisted that the party would unify around its new leadership, including soon-to-be-named speaker, John Boehner, he warned that Republican lawmakers who strayed from the core tenants of the party – “liberty” and fiscal discipline – would face the wrath of Tea Party activists in the next round of elections.
“[If] you start spending money like a drunken sailor, or you get careless with our liberty, or you think a new government bail-out is a good idea, understand: we will find your opponent in your next primary and we will work for that opponent,” he said. “Now you take the measure of what you think we can do. If you are not afraid of us, then go be reckless all you want.”
At FreedomWorks headquarters in Washington, the mood was ebullient on Election Night. Mostly young activists gathered around kegs of beer, cupcakes and pretzels covered in red, white and blue sprinkles, cheered as results came streaming in over Fox News.
Mr Boehner’s staff also told CNN that the presumptive speaker, a more traditional Republican, had reassured a Tea Party group that “I will never let you down”.
Mr Paul said he favoured setting up a Tea Party caucus in the Senate, which would be likely to push for big cuts in spending. But Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, another conservative Republican figure who has very active in the Tea Party movement, argued that it was more likely that the existing conservative caucus would be expanded.
“One mistake we’re making in this election is to suggest …it’s all about the official Tea Party movement,” he argued, saying that many conservative voters “don’t consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement”.
At stake is whether the Tea Party becomes a powerful force on Capitol Hill in its own right, perhaps in conflict with established conservatives, or instead plays a more supporting role.
But Mr Armey played down any suggestion of internecine conflict between conservatives in the Tea Party movement and more traditional Republicans.
“The majority of the majority sets the agenda,” he said. “Republicans are by nature very gentle, forgiving and accepting people so while these differences take place, you won’t see brutally intemperate treatment of one another like you saw with Democrats.”
Corporate America has much to celebrate and – perhaps – some cause to fear with the rise of some Tea Party candidates. Mr Armey and other prominent Tea Party activists are staunch supporters of free enterprise and low taxes. But Mr Armey is also a tough critic of corporate subsidies, especially for the agricultural industry.
He singled out Archer Daniels Midland, the giant agriculture conglomerate, which he said needed to learn to compete instead of accepting “government handouts …If you are Archer Daniels Midland, you ought to be big enough to stand on your own hoof. If you can’t, then get out of business.”
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