In the last weeks before the election, Sen. Michael Bennet was crisscrossing his home state of Colorado, stumping in big cities and small towns, trying to extract every vote he could from any corner he could find it.
The race between he and his challenger Ken Buck, a Republican and Tea Party favorite, was neck-and-neck. Bennet, a Democrat, claimed internal polling showed him ahead, but other polls showed the two deadlocked, and the national mood seemed was poised to boot out Democrat incumbents like him.
Appearing in the back of a brewpub in Glenwood Springs, Bennet drove home a message he was making in stop after stop. He portrayed himself as the moderate candidate and Buck as extreme, and Buck’s talk of privatizing Social Security and ending student loans as “crazy.”
“If we do everything we’re supposed to do, we will win this seat,” he told supporters.
The strategy worked. Both candidates went to bed Tuesday night with the race in a tossup. They woke up Wednesday to find Bennet with a widening lead. It was one of a few races that Republicans lost by a hair’s breadth and raised questions about the Tea Party.
The movement undoubtedly was effective in rallying momentum behind the Republican tide. Exit polls showed two in five Americans identified themselves with the movement. But did the Tea Party cost Republicans the Senate by running candidates that were too extreme or unqualified in races a mainstream candidate could have won?
“The US Senate was the Republicans’ to win in this election,” said University of Denver political scientist Peter Hanson. “I think the fact that they nominated Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware all led to them losing races that they should have won.”
They offer cautionary tales for the Tea Party.
“The bottom line is, candidates still matter and the individual dynamics of the state still matter,” said Jon Ralston, a political columnist for the Las Vegas Sun and longtime state political observer. “A better candidate could have beat Harry Reid.”
Reid, the Senate majority leader, is unpopular and uncharismatic. Las Vegas’ economy is among the hardest hit in the country. Its unemployment rate is the highest in the nation. But Angle, who reveled in thumping Nevada’s GOP establishment, left a wake of controversial statements and nasty ads that many took to be racist.
Reid succeeded in rallying the Democratic base behind him while convincing others that Angle was too extreme, a message he took to his victory speech Tuesday night.
“Nevada chose hope over fear,” he said. “Nevada chose to move forward, not backwards.”
Bennet followed a similar playbook, rallying the base while trying to peel away the center. He narrowly pulled it off, joining Reid in a small club of Democratic incumbents who won reelection.
Like Angle, Buck enjoyed strong Tea Party support. But stumbles, like comparing homosexuality to alcoholism, hurt him. And stances that appealed to his base, including his strong anti-abortion stance, allowed him to be painted as out of the mainstream.
“I do think Republicans hurt themselves by nominating a candidate who was open to accusations of being extreme,” Hanson said.
The Tea Party may also be able to take some blame for Republicans losing the Colorado governor’s mansion. Their support for Dan Maes pitted an inexperienced candidate against Denver’s popular Democratic Mayor John Hickenlooper. In the end, Maes struggled to get a double-digit share of the vote.
“On the one hand, they were very successful in having their candidates nominated by the Republicans for the governorship and the Senate,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “On the other hand, the person they came up with – and they mostly recognized that – was beyond unqualified. He had so many problems in his background that he completely lost credibility. I think they lost an opportunity to elect a conservative. I think a conservative with a message may have won that race for the governorship.”
Questions about Maes’ background and integrity led many supporters to flee, laying the groundwork for anti-immigration firebrand Tom Tancredo to run an outsider’s campaign as the American Constitution Party candidate.
Tancredo’ campaign gained momentum. He became the effective conservative candidate, and late polls showed him close to Hickenlooper. But Hickenlooper, confident in his lead, mostly ignored his opponents and sailed to an easy win without going negative.
Even Sarah Palin’s blessing proved a mixed blessing for candidates. Most of her picks won, but many were in safe races. In some key races, including Angle’s and Tancredo’s, they stumbled.
Republicans can thank the Tea Party for a groundswell movement that pushed voters to the polls. But the mixed results in high-profile races raise questions about the GOP and Tea Party’s future together.
“The challenge for the Republican Party going forward is whether or not the establishment can meet the Tea Party and come up with some accommodation that allows for better nominees in 2012,” Ciruli said.
That’s a challenge, he said, because the Tea Party is by its nature anti-establishment, and its candidates are often outsiders by design.
“They’re going to get some blame for not winning the Senate,” Ciruli said, “but the Republican Party can’t ignore them. By and large, the Tea Party agenda is the Republican Party agenda: bringing austerity to the federal government.”
Starting next year, he said, the Tea Party will be a stronger force in the Republican Party than ever before, he said.
David Frey writes in Glenwood Springs. Follow him at www.davidmfrey.com.