While losses by Tea Party-backed candidates may have helped cost Republicans control of the U.S. Senate, the movement furnished the intensity and enthusiasm that enabled the party to seize a majority in the House.
Republicans gained at least 60 House seats in the Nov. 2 election, and Tea Party-endorsed candidates accounted for 28 of those pickups, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The party needed a gain of 39 seats to wrest House control from Democrats.
“Members of the Tea Party movement provided the energy to allow Republicans to take back the House,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. “It wasn’t the particular candidates, but the overall movement.”
The large number of incoming Tea Party-backed candidates has empowered Republicans aligned with the grass-roots activists to try to expand their power in Congress. Representative Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican and a favorite of the movement that seeks limited government, announced yesterday on Facebook that she will seek a leadership post in the party’s House caucus.
The wins by the Tea Party-supported candidates also will likely present House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, the speaker-in-waiting, with a chamber that is more polarized -- in part because as the new Tea Party-affiliated members take their seats, a like number of self-described fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats are leaving the House, through either retirements or election defeats.
Also, a commentary published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal by Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina urged Tea Party-backed candidates entering office to “put on their boxing gloves” and not get “co-opted” by congressional leaders. DeMint has enlarged his political profile through the aid he’s given various Tea Party-supported candidates.
Tea Party backers hope that their congressional ranks will grow even larger in 2012. The activists are planning primary challenges to some Senate Republicans they deem not conservative enough, said former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican who now heads FreedomWorks, a group that helped elect Tea Party-backed candidates.
Activists are “talking about what we are going to be doing two years from now, and even four years from now,” Armey said.
Republicans -- needing a gain of 10 seats to win Senate control -- picked up at least six, with the race for a Democratic-controlled seat in Washington state remaining too close to call. The party lost three Senate races -- in Delaware, Colorado and Nevada -- that featured Tea Party-backed candidates who had won primaries over candidates whom most Republican officials considered more electable.
Still, the fragmented band of fiscally conservative activists set much of the political agenda in the campaign season. Four out of 10 voters surveyed in exit polls said they support the movement. And Tea Party favorites Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida scored Senate victories for Republicans.
“There’s a Tea Party tidal wave, and we’re sending a message,” Paul said in his victory speech.
Blue Dog Defeats
At the same time the 28 Republican candidates endorsed by FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Express or former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin -- a prominent spokeswoman for Tea Party causes -- were winning House races across the country, 22 Blue Dog Democrats were going down to defeat. Six of the group’s 53 members had previously said they would not seek re-election.
At least 10 of the seats held by Blue Dog Democrats were won by Tea Party Republicans. In Colorado, for example, Tea Party-backed businessman Scott Tipton beat three-term Blue Dog Democrat John Salazar. In Florida, Steve Southerland, a Republican who co-founded a local Tea Party group, defeated seven-term Democrat Allen Boyd, also a member of the Blue Dog Coalition.
Businessman Jim Renacci, who was endorsed by FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Express and Palin, defeated Representative John Boccieri, an Ohio Democrat who was part of the freshman class that rode into office as part of President Barack Obama’s 2008 victory.
“What I tell Tea Party activists is what Ronald Reagan said,” Renacci said in an interview in Canton, Ohio, referring to the former Republican president. “You may not agree with me 100 percent of the time, but if we can agree 80 percent of the time, we’ll get a lot accomplished.”
Bachmann, who in July started a Tea Party caucus in the House, could see its membership more than double. She will be counting on that support in challenging Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas to become chairman of the House Republican Conference, the fourth-ranking post in the party’s House leadership.
“The congresswoman believes a strong constitutional conservative voice should be represented within the GOP leadership,” said her spokesman, Sergio Gor.
Hensarling sent a letter to lawmakers yesterday, announcing his intention to run and highlighting his commitment to reclaiming “economic freedom, fiscal accountability, and limited government.”
Those backing Hensarling include Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House’s No. 2 Republican. Boehner turned to Hensarling to be one of the party’s members on the Troubled Asset Relief Program oversight panel and the deficit reduction commission created by Obama.
Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican who is supporting Bachmann, said party leaders want to pack the leadership team with their picks.
“That means there’s not someone on the inside circle who’s going to be the voice of constitutional conservatives,” he said. “That would be a shame, since they are the ones who gave us this majority.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at Msilva34@bloomberg.net.