Can the Tea Party Pull Off a November Upset?

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WASHINGTON -- A new CBS News poll shows that more than half the country hasn't made up its mind about the Tea Party movement.

But the fact that the Tea Party has become a force in American politics is hard to dispute. This November, Americans will discover whether the movement's anger, enthusiasm, and agenda translates to success at the ballot box.

"There's so much anger at the Obama administration that I think the Tea Party has done an exceptional job of focusing that, of harnessing it," said Mark Halperin, editor-at-large and political analyst for Time Magazine. "I think it will play a big role in the midterms."

Tea Party candidates are positioned to play that role, especially in a number of Senate races.

Republican Sharron Angle is virtually tied with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Polls are also are positive for Florida's Marco Rubio, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Mike Lee in Utah, and Joe Miller in Alaska.

In Colorado, Ken Buck is running neck-and-neck against Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett.

Winning Mainstream America

The only major trouble spot is in Delaware, where Christine O'Donnell is trailing in the polls.

"Delaware is a state where President Obama received over 61 percent of the vote, and so it's more of a challenge for her to show that she has appeal outside of the conservative Tea Party base," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Report.

It's also the biggest challenge for all Tea Party candidates: convincing key swing voters that theirs is a mainstream message. The candidates say their legislative priorities aren't extreme at all.

Coming out of their tea kettle include issues like term limits, ending earmarks, a balanced budget amendment, actually reading congressional bills, and citing the constitutional authority for each one of them.

Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul told CBN News that the Tea Party message should easily resonate in a general election.

"The national media wants to make us out to be right-wing extremists," Paul said. "Every one of those issues is very mainstream, and if you polled among Democrats and independents, 70 to 80 percent are for it. So I think it's a winning message."

Rubio said each individual candidate must explain that message to voters.

"If I do a good job of articulating that, I won't have to worry about Democrats, Republicans, independents. I'm going to win," Rubio told CBN News.

Former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee agreed that the Tea Party candidate message was in line with most of America.

"These candidates are winning because they are more in sync with the people than they are with the New York Times editorial board," he said.

"The problem is the New York Times editorial board and the people who tend to think like that - they're the ones who are out of sync," he added. "They're the ones whose views are extreme."

Money and Organization

But there are other challenges: organization and money - the bread and butter of winning elections.

Three main groups are taking on those challenges. The Tea Party Patriots are the largest group with more than 2,800 chapters. National leaders hold weekly conference calls.

The Tea Party Express has raised more than $5 million for candidates this election cycle, all of it through small donations from their members.

Finally, there is Freedom Works, based in Washington, D.C. The group coordinates Tea Party involvement by training volunteers and assisting in campaigns. All of this has worked so far - in the primaries at least.

"The Tea Party is most effective when it's focused, and that's where they've defeated Sen. Bennett in Utah, Sen. Murkowski in Alaska," Gonzales said.

"There's been a focus in saying this is where we need to look at all of our energy and our time and our resources on this race at this time, and that's when you've seen the Tea Party be most effective," he said.

Making a Connection

But money and organization doesn't guarantee a win. Often winning comes down to the right fit and the right personality. Mica Sims is a Tea Party organizer for Paul's campaign in Kentucky.

"He was able to connect with the people," said Mica Sims, the Tea Party organizer for Paul's campaign. "He was able to connect with the citizens of Kentucky and the grassroots movement."

So, while Tea Party candidates may be more successful in this wave election of 2010, there are still questions about sustaining ballot box success in the future.

"I do think that leadership is required, like in any organization," Halperin said. "You need some strong, recognizable leaders to take the Tea Party from an influential movement to a really important and dominant one."

The midterm elections of 2010 could be the beginning of that process.

*Originally published Oct. 14, 2010. 

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