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

National candidates touting the tea party have been met with mixed results.

ByABC News
July 14, 2010, 5:13 PM

July 15, 2010— -- As the race to November's midterm elections heats up, the Tea Party movement is stepping up its campaigns, pouring in money and manpower to unlikely candidates across the country.

But the movement's appeal, while growing, has yet to be tested fully, as evident in this week's runoff election in Alabama where Tea Party favorite Rick Barber lost to Martha Roby. Despite his grassroots campaign and controversial ads depicting the founding fathers, Barber lost the race for an Alabama congressional seat to a candidate favored by the Republican establishment.

The Tea Party remains fragmented, there's no one unified voice or group representing the movement, and it doesn't enjoy the status of an official party. While most of its members associate with the Republican party, many of their beliefs are at odds with the GOP.

Yet Tea Party fervor has spread from coast to coast, with grassroots momentum reminiscent of President Obama's own boots-on-the-ground strategy that propelled him to victory in 2008.

Several high-profile candidates who have closely attached themselves to Tea Party ideology have gained national recognition, such as Kentucky's GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul, Nevada's Republican Senate challenger Sharron Angle, South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, and Utah Senate nominee Mike Lee.

The Tea Party's efforts were also vital in driving out Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, the three-term senator from Utah who lost his re-election bid.

At the same time, just as many Tea Party favorites have failed to secure key nominations -- California Senate hopeful Chuck DeVore lost to businesswoman Carly Fiorina; Doug Hoffman lost in the New York House special election despite Sarah Palin's backing; and Idaho Congressional candidate Vaughn Ward lost the Republican primary even though he nabbed Palin's endorsement.

Tea Party candidates such as Barber and Angle were embroiled in tense competitions within their own parties. And some Republicans have voiced concerns that the Tea Party-fueled momentum will only inadvertently hurt the GOP.

"With the Tea Party creating the mischief that it is in Colorado, we may not win that seat. My sources in Nevada say with Sharron Angle there's no way [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid loses in Nevada," Bennett said in an interview with The Associated Press last week. "At the moment there is not a cohesive Republican strategy of this is what we're going to do. And certainly among the Tea Party types there's clearly no strategy of this is what we're going to do."

But Tea Party supporters say the discord in the movement is its strength, not a weakness.

"It's designed to be fragmented. That's the difference between the Tea Party and the political elite," said Shelby Blakely, a spokeswoman for Tea Party Patriots, a national group that provides support to local Tea Party organizations.

The differences of opinion are "mathematically impossible to avoid and we actually don't want to," Blakely said. "We are working towards a common goal and when it comes down to the wire, we unite and we become a rather larger force of people who can donate millions of man hours and resources to the right candidates, to the right issue, the right legislation. We've proven that."

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."