The national "tea party" movement's recent winning streak broke with Tuesday's primary results, providing fresh evidence of the decentralized conservative network's struggle to convert activist anger and energy into electoral results.
That struggle is likely to continue as Republicans head into general elections without knowing whether conservative activists will throw their support behind more moderate GOP nominees. Even the tea party favorites who prevailed on Tuesday face the new challenge of fighting perceptions of extremism among moderate and independent voters.
From California to Virginia (with some notable exceptions), establishment-favored candidates won Tuesday in Republican primary battles for governor, House and Senate. In California, candidates who claimed the conservative mantle were outgunned by well-known and well-funded opponents. And in two congressional races in Virginia, where the tea party movement is popular and abundant, activists were unable to coalesce around a single candidate -- illustrating the organizational challenges facing the movement's grass roots.
Tea party leaders, meanwhile, are more willing than ever to vent their frustrations publicly, raising the question of whether the movement's prospects for better organization or stronger leadership are likely to improve any time soon. Even more demoralizing for activists, perhaps, is a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showing disapproval of the tea party at an all-time high; according to the poll, 50 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the movement, compared with 39 percent in March.
"The tea party movement is not as politically sophisticated as it needs to be," said Judson Phillips, founder of the national group Tea Party Nation. "When you have a half-dozen people calling themselves tea party candidates, you need to get them in a room, and some of them need to be willing to drop out so the tea party candidate can win. That's one of the frustrating things about this movement: It's supposed to be something other than politics as usual, but some of these folks are only looking out for themselves, and not for the country."
Signs of struggle even emerged Tuesday in Nevada, where Republican Sharron Angle cruised to victory with endorsements from Tea Party Express, another national tea party group called FreedomWorks and the fiscally conservative Club for Growth. Supporters for small businessman Danny Tarkanian resented the role of those national groups and the pressure they put on Tarkanian to drop out -- and said they would reject continued efforts by these groups to tell local activists what to do.
"We don't want a leader," said Barbee Kinnison, a Tarkanian supporter from Henderson, Nev., whose testy e-mail exchange with organizers of Tea Party Express was published in the blogosphere last week. "We like it being a collective group of voices. This is the first time in a generation when we feel like our voices are being heard."
Angle's victory Tuesday provides another challenge for the tea party. Although she is an exception to the day's trend of establishment wins, she is now vulnerable to portrayal by her Democratic opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, as an extremist. Her support for a nuclear reprocessing facility at Yucca Mountain, for abolishing the federal departments of energy and education and for a prison rehabilitation program promoted by the Church of Scientology and involving massage and saunas are among the positions she's taken and statements she's made that Reid's camp is sure to discuss frequently between now and November.
Already, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has released this statement: "Sharron Angle is focused on appealing to the fringe of her party. This election will be a choice for voters: between the Senate Majority Leader fighting for them, or a risky candidate with no clout to deliver for Nevada the way Senator Reid does every day."
Even some Republicans are worried.
"Sharron Angle scares the hell out of me," said one national conservative who asked not to be identified for fear of angering other Republicans. "Anybody who knows politics knows you can't just win a primary. You've got to put up somebody who can win the primary and the general."
Such views help explain why Angle has avoided contact with the national media in recent days; the strategy could help prevent the kind of unpleasant coming-out party that Kentucky's Rand Paul experienced after his Senate primary win last month. Paul, the son of former presidential candidate Ron Paul and a national tea party favorite, was branded an extremist after describing his opposition to certain elements of the Civil Rights Act. Lately, Paul has declined national media requests for interviews.
Aside from Nevada, a similar exception to the establishment trend occurred Tuesday in Maine, where Republican voters chose tea party favorite and Waterville Mayor Paul LePage as their nominee for governor. LePage could struggle for support in the general election in a state known for its moderate voting tendencies. LePage faces state Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, a labor-supported Democrat, in the race to replace term-limited Democrat John Baldacci. And independent Eliot Cutler, onetime member of the Carter administration, could steal votes from the middle -- so the outcome in November is far from clear.
One bright spot for the tea party Tuesday was South Carolina, where tea party-backed candidates led the GOP nominations for governor (Nikki Haley) and three congressional districts (Tim Scott in the 1st District, Richard Cash in the 3rd and Trey Gowdy in the 4th). Gowdy's win was particularly sweet for the tea party because he bested incumbent Republican Bob Inglis. None of the leaders in these four races reached 50 percent, however, so all will head to a runoff in two weeks.
The more conservative candidate, businessman Keith Fimian, also prevailed against Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity in Northern Virginia's 11th Congressional District -- but again, Fimian's challenge will be to connect with the region's moderate voters and to draw a winning contrast with freshman Democrat (and pro-business moderate) Gerald E. Connolly.
That result stands in contrast to two other races in Virginia, where the establishment candidate prevailed easily over wide fields. In central Virginia's 5th District, state Sen. Robert Hurt beat back six other Republican candidates for the chance to challenge freshman Democrat Tom Perriello, despite a vocal tea party movement and a nasty race in which Hurt was portrayed as a too-moderate Republican who voted for the largest tax increase in Virginia's history.
And in Virginia Beach's 2nd District, car dealer Scott Rigell beat tea-party backed Ben Loyola for the chance to face Virginia's other freshman Democrat, Glenn Nye. Rigell won with an endorsement from Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and despite criticism over his donation, in 2008, to the campaign of Barack Obama. "I have known Scott for decades, and he is exactly who we need in Washington to get our economy back on track and get Virginians back to work," McDonnell said in a statement last night.