Tea Party Test: Conservative Movement's Strength Unclear in Midterm Elections

Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore said the Tea Party's mixed results in the primaries speak to the current disequilibrium in U.S. politics.

"I actually think it's not a political movement and I think it's important to recognize that," said Lepore, whose book, "The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History," will be released in October. "People subscribe to it essentially because of beliefs, not so much ideas but beliefs -- about the nature of the world and about the relationship between the past, the present and the future. ... In many ways it defies description."

Tea Party Tested in Primaries

Many candidates are exploiting the popular grassroots momentum of the Tea Party, but it's too early to tell how long that allegiance will remain.

In Massachusetts, the Tea Party helped Sen. Scott Brown win an upset victory over Democrat Martha Coakley for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. The Tea Party Express released an ad extolling the virtues of Brown, and the Our Country Deserves Better PAC poured money into his campaign. He was hailed by many as the first official Tea Party victory, even though Brown distanced himself from the movement.

But Brown's decision to side with the Democrats on Wall Street reform outraged Tea Party members, leading many to call him a traitor. The Greater Boston Tea Party said in a statement Brown "defied" his commitment to activists and his donors, and questioned whether the group will support him in 2012 for re-election.

"I think that we are going to make huge gains. I believe we will then continue to hold responsible those people who get elected using Tea Party help," Blakely said. "If these candidates want to continue to be elected they are going to have to adhere to the core values of the Tea Party, specifically constitutionally limited government and fiscal responsibility."

Americans' view toward the Tea Party is divided. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week, 30 percent said they are more likely to support a candidate who is associated with the Tea Party political movement, while 30 percent said they are less likely to do so.

Another ABC News/Washington Post poll released in May found that 27 percent of Americans supported the Tea Party but nearly as many oppose it.

Despite the lack of direction and an clarity on how the Tea Party will fare in November, the movement's advocates are confident their influence will only expand.

"I believe it is the preeminent formidable force," Blakely said.

Lepore said it's difficult to predict what the future holds for the movement, and it's difficult to tell right now whether their favorite candidates are electable, but the upcoming elections will be a major test of the Tea Party's appeal.

"I think it's a moment in time that involves a lot of passion and large numbers of people are accepting it," Lepore said. "Until we get through this moment of equilibrium, it will be a little bit hard to predict."

The next test of Tea Party's mettle is in Georgia, where on July 20, Palin-endorsed Karen Handel will face off against former Rep. Nathan Deal for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

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