What would mark success for the Tea Party?

The uncooperative Democrats and their tax cuts disaster

Sean Theriault, associate professor of government in the university's College of Liberal Arts, studies American political institutions, primarily U.S. Congress and party polarization. He is researching the rise of the so-called "Gingrich Senators" and their influence on the U.S. Senate.

The election polls this season are coming to end as early voters in many states are casting ballots. Even before the results roll in, I offer some thoughts on what will constitute a successful night for the Tea Party.

At this point, pundits are mostly talking about the eight states with election contests that still remain exceedingly close according to the polls. The Tea Party candidates who defeated establishment Republican candidates in the primaries are featured in three of the races (Kentucky, Colorado and Nevada). In five other states, Tea Party candidates also defeated the establishment candidate. In three of those states (Utah, Florida and Alaska), the polls indicate that a Republican will win. In two states (Delaware and Connecticut), Tea Party candidates are behind.

If Sharron Angle (Nevada), Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Ken Buck (Colorado) win in the exceedingly close races, the Tea Party will have completed a hugely successful 2010 election season. Such an assessment, however, contains three relatively huge asterisks.

First, all these states would have been safely put in the Republican column weeks ago had the establishment Republicans won the primaries. Such moves in the electoral map would have freed up money and effort to help Republicans in other competitive states.

Second, if the Democrats hold on by one seat, all of us pundits will point to the awful choice that the Republican primary voters made in Delaware. The Republican establishment candidate, Mike Castle, would have won that race by 20 points. It looks like Christine O'Donnell will lose by a similar amount. Although a Tea Party candidate also won the GOP nomination in Connecticut, the effect of that win was much smaller as the Democrat was likely to win even if the Republican-establishment candidate had prevailed in the Republican primary.

Third, Senator Lisa Murkowski is poised to provide the biggest surprise on election day - she very well may defeat Tea Party backed candidate, Joe Miller, as a write-in candidate in Alaska. If Murkowski wins as a write-in, the Tea Party will have suffered a major defeat.

With greater success on election night, the Tea Party candidates will be empowered.

While the Tea Party has tried to downplay the culture war issues, the Tea Party candidates in these three states are pro-life even in cases of rape or incest. This issue also separates Miller (no exceptions) from Murkowski who takes a more moderate view of the issue. Furthermore, Buck has compared homosexuality to alcoholism. In his logic, just as the alcoholic chooses to take a drink so does the homosexual choose to act on his or her orientation. These candidates' actions after the election will reveal if they will choose to dismantle the federal government largesse built up by Obama before they bring the federal government into your bedroom or doctor's office.

The problems that face the United States are real. The economy, though brought back from the brink of collapse two years ago, is still not humming along as most Americans want. Our global position is more precarious than it has been any time in the post-Cold War world. Deficits are climbing, unemployment is stagnant and our bravest are still involved in combat operations in Afghanistan. Now is the time for pragmatic problem-solving. Regrettably, the Republican primary voters in a handful of states have not given us the option of a conservative pragmatic problem solver.

The Senate has enough Jim DeMints. It needs more Lindsay Grahams.

More election posts from Sean Theriault:

Visit the mid-term elections blog series home page for a complete lineup of faculty experts' analyses.