Ted Cruz’s stunning 14-percentage-point victory over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in Tuesday’s runoff for the Texas Republican Senate nomination gives the tea party explosive momentum heading into the remaining primaries nationwide and the November general elections.
That momentum has been building since the 2010 elections, when tea party-backed Republican candidates like Marco Rubio of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky knocked off establishment Republicans on their way to win Senate seats. The wave also helped the party make historic gains in the House to retake control of the chamber.
But unlike two years ago, when the then-nascent movement also suffered a series of high-profile electoral stumbles, campaigns running under the unofficial tea party banner in 2012 appear more mature, smart and disciplined, and seem poised to avoid mistakes that have been blamed for keeping Republicans from picking up even more Senate seats and possible control of the chamber.
“Anyone who wanted to question whether the tea party concept and ideals played out in 2010, I think you can argue they just got started in 2010,” said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative, free-market group. “And 2012 is a clear indication the tea party is alive and well and growing.”
The grass-roots movement sprouted in the aftermath of the 2008 elections, as conservatives searched for a vehicle to vent their dislike and distrust of newly elected President Obama.
While it exuded enthusiasm and dedication, it also lacked critical political experience — a point highlighted by such 2010 congressional candidates as Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, Sharron Angle of Nevada and Joe Miller of Alaska, who scored surprising primary upsets but whose political rawness was glaring in general-election defeats.
But as more Republican candidates adopt tea party ideals and rhetoric, that “means that those candidates like Christine O’Donnell are less likely to win because Republicans are running smart primaries,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.
“If a candidate believes in fiscally conservative policies the tea party likely will get behind him.”
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, agreed the movement has evolved since its early years when it gained notoriety with fiery town hall meetings, rallies and marches but largely lacked electoral savvy.
“They’re using what they’ve learned against the establishment and doing what the establishment has done for years; getting out the vote and the boring drum work that has to be done,” she said.
“We’re doing different things. It’s not the big splashy events that get all the media attention but they’re still doing whatever it takes to return our country to a fiscally responsible constitutionally and limited government with free-market drive.”
The movement also is boosted by a major influx of cash from well-funded outside groups, such as Club for Growth’s political action committee that spent more than $5.5 million in Texas to either support Mr. Cruz or attack Mr. Dewhurst.
“You can be the greatest candidate in the world and if you can’t deliver your message nobody knows you exist,” Mr. Chocola said. “All we do is try to give the candidates an opportunity to deliver a message.”
Mr. Cruz isn’t the only high-profile tea party success story this year. Upstart Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock stunned longtime Sen. Richard G. Lugar in the state’s GOP Senate primary. And Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer scored an upset primary victory over heavily favored state Attorney General Jon Bruning.
Mrs. Martin vows the tea party won’t sell out to the Republican Party or any established political group. But she adds she would be happy if any party borrows tea party ideas.