Day Of The Tea Party? Election Day Answers Some, Not All Questions

So this is it — the day the tea partiers take back America. Or at least part of it. Or at least convince Republicans to stop taking it away as much as they did the last time they were in charge. Or at least convince Republicans to repeatedly respond to the movement’s inflamed passions with tea party-friendly rhetoric.

Whatever happens, tonight’s tally sheets will be all about the tea party — those folks on TV will be counting candidates and races to see how big the tea party’s influence in Washington will be in the end. There are several races to watch, but the main thing to remember is that the tea party can’t really lose tonight: all they can really do is win less.[TPM SLIDESHOW: Tea Partiers Storm DC For Second (And Smaller) 9/12 Rally]

As has been shown in the GOP’s willingness to embrace the tea party’s tough anti-government positions, it’s doubtful that, say, even if Sharron Angle loses in Nevada and Ken Buck loses in Colorado that tea party influence will be hurt all that much. Even if the Republicans somehow don’t win big tonight, the GOP has figured out which side of the bread the butter is on, and — to mix a metaphor — it’s on the side facing the tea. For now, anyway.

At the end of the day, we should know exactly how many official tea partiers will have made it from the campaign trail to the halls of power. Whichever of the dozens of tea party candidates on the ballot makes it will join a Republican Party desperately trying to look like it’s in on the revolution, too.

Here’s a quick refresher on some of the candidates to watch to see if the tea party has a great or pretty good or terrible night.

Rand Paul

Perhaps the most tea party pure of the tea party Senate nominees, the Republican nominee for Senate in Kentucky is the man whose sometimes eccentric views represent the hopes and fears of the tea party movement. Paul hasn’t been afraid to take on his party’s leadership — running hard against the handpicked candidate of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to win his primary — but he’s also shown himself willing to embrace the same establishment he shunned now that he’s the nominee.

It would be a big surprise if Paul lost tonight. The TPM Poll Average shows Paul leading Democrat Jack Conway 50.3-42.3.

Sharron Angle

Perhaps the highest-profile of the tea party-backed candidates, Angle is probably more popular with tea partiers because she might beat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Nevada Senate race than because she’s a good public face for the movement. Angle has shunned the media since becoming the nominee, but that still hasn’t prevented the press from catching her suggesting that violent revolution could be coming, or refusing to talk about how she’d prosecute America’s wars.

Despite her flaws, however, Angle’s defeat of an establishment-backed candidate in the primary and a defeat of Reid in the general would probably be enough for the media to crown the night a tea party success. And at this point, polls show her pulling away (slightly) from Reid. The TPM Poll Average shows Angle leading Reid 49.5-46.4

Ken Buck

In Colorado, the Republican nominee for Senate is an outsider, but he can gaffe like a pro. Nevertheless, he’s facing off against Sen. Michael Bennet (D), viewed as especially close to President Obama’s heart. Defeating Bennet would be perceived as a major victory by the tea party over the president who fuels much of their vitriol.

This one is still essentially a toss-up, though Buck leads Bennet in the TPM Poll Average 48.4-46.0/

Jan Brewer

Arizona’s incumbent Republican governor isn’t your typical tea party-backed candidate. But this race is a good example of tea party influence on Republican politics, even if they don’t win big in federal races tonight. The tea party isn’t just about taxes and spending — it’s also about taking a hard conservative line on things like immigration reform, a line that the establishment GOP seems happy to stand behind along with tea partiers. Brewer is expected to cruise to an easy victory, due in most part to her willingness to sign her state’s controversial 1070 immigration law.

The TPM Poll Average shows Brewer leading Democrat Terry Goddard 57.6-38.6.

Marco Rubio

Another Republican seemingly assured of victory, Florida’s GOP Senate nominee represents the ideal hybrid establishment tea partier. A total conservative, Rubio is able to wield tea party rhetoric with the poise and polish of career politician, which is what he is. Rubio is not new to the deal-making of the legislative process, but he also knows how to communicate with the tea party. This is the Republican future tea partiers see when they dream at night.

The TPM Poll Average shows Rubio leading Independent Gov. Charlie Crist and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek 45.9-30.5-19.1.

Christine O’Donnell

On the other side of the coin from Rubio is Delaware’s Republican Senate nominee. Where Rubio is an absolute success story, O’Donnell is the embodiment of tea party fail. Too conservative socially and fiscally for the state in which she is running, O’Donnell was forced upon the Delaware GOP by tea partiers uninterested in things like “electability.” This is the establishment GOP’s nightmare, and the Democrats’ hope for what’s in store for the Republican Party after tonight is over. If the tea party fails the Republican Party, that failure will likely resemble O’Donnell’s almost assured loss tonight.

The TPM Poll Average shows Democrat Chris Coons leading O’Donnell 55.2-37.7.

Tim Scott

The Republican nominee in South Carolina’s First Congressional District is extremely important for the tea party movement’s self-image. Stung by claims that tea partying is tinged with racial prejudice, the idea that an African American like Scott could be one of the only black Republicans in the party’s House caucus as well as a tea party-affiliated pol goes a long way to prove, tea partiers say, that the movement is not bigoted. Scott is expected to win, something you can expect the tea party will trumpet loudly.

Joe Miller

In Alaska, the tea party is having to fight the establishment GOP and the Democrats at the same time. Miller, the official Republican nominee, felled Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) in the primary, only to see her jump back in the general election race as a write-in. Polls have shown Miller slipping of late, giving observers the chance to suggest that true tea partiers like Miller can’t convince general election voters to come around to the cause. That helps to fuel the narrative of some tea party critics that the movement has pushed the Republican Party too far to the right to be truly viable in the long term (read: 2012).

The TPM Poll Average shows Murkowski leading Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams 36.9-31.7-25.5.