By Josh Kraushaar
The lion's share of attention paid to the Tea Party movement has gone to its Senate candidates, a slew of outsiders who have touted their opposition to excessive government, shaking up the Republican Party and upending races across the country.
But for a real sense of whether the Tea Party is a short-term fad or a long-term force, look no further than the gubernatorial landscape, where at least four outspoken conservative candidates with connections to the movement are within striking distance of running state government -- some of them in true Democratic bastions.
In Maine, Minnesota, Illinois and New York -- all states President Obama won by double-digit margins -- Tea Party-backed candidates whose messages are unlike anything voters have heard in decades are on the doorsteps of the governor's mansions.
The front-runner in the Maine gubernatorial race is Paul LePage, a businessman who has railed against government overspending and regulation in a state long dependent on federal funds for economic development and military bases. LePage's message is downright discordant in a state that isn't used to conservatives of any stripe; even its two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, hail from the moderate wing of the party.
Despite that history, LePage leads by double digits over Democrat Libby Mitchell in several public polls. Even Mitchell's internal polling shows LePage ahead.
In Minnesota, state Rep. Tom Emmer won the Republican gubernatorial nomination with support from both Sarah Palin and local Tea Party activists. He has a well-earned reputation as an uncompromising conservative with a penchant for angering even fellow Republican colleagues. One of his first proposed bills in the state House was to cut off subsidized prenatal care for illegal immigrants.
Polling shows Emmer in a close race against the Democratic nominee, former Sen. Mark Dayton.
"He's more Michele Bachmann than Tim Pawlenty," said one Minnesota Republican strategist, who argued that Emmer would be the most conservative governor of the state since the 1920s. "We'd be making history, no doubt about it."
In Illinois, staunchly conservative GOP state Sen. Bill Brady has led Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn throughout the summer. Brady supports cutting the minimum wage in a state where every governor over the last half-century has courted labor's clout. He's a down-the-line social conservative in a state where the last three Republican governors -- James Thompson, Jim Edgar and George Ryan -- have all supported abortion rights to some degree. If Brady wins, he will be the most conservative governor in Springfield since World War II.
Meanwhile, the ascendancy of New York GOP gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino is a direct result of the growing divide between the leadership class and the disaffected public. For many New York voters, you could fill a laundry list of grievances: the ailing upstate economy, dysfunctional dealings in Albany, two Democratic governors tarred with scandal, and, most recently, officials' defense of a planned Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero in the face of widespread opposition.
Paladino, an outspoken Buffalo developer, has been a regular at state Tea Party rallies, promising to "take a baseball bat" to Albany. The fact that he's competitive in New York despite loads of personal baggage is a measure of the resentment toward the political class in the Empire State.
Simply put, the strong showing of staunchly conservative candidates in some of the bluest states is a testament to the electorate's anger and anxiety this year.
On the senatorial side, that anger has fueled the candidacies of Rand Paul, Joe Miller, Sharron Angle and Marco Rubio, who have publicly called for cutting back spending and entitlements. But even if that wave of Tea Party candidates gets elected to the Senate, they will have little power to enact their proposals. Their elections may have a tectonic effect within the Senate Republican Conference, but in practical terms, with a Democratic president and possible continued Democratic control of the Senate, it will be difficult for them to move their agenda.
And that's what makes this slate of gubernatorial candidates, if elected, so consequential for the future of the Tea Party movement. These candidates have made their name in opposition to Obama's policies, but if handed the reins of power, can they lead effectively? Will their anti-tax rhetoric survive the harsh budgetary reality in their states?
Governing, as Obama has discovered, is more difficult than winning an election. The conservative energy that could propel these candidates to victory is as much a reaction against the Democratic Party as it is support of the individual candidates.
The Tea Party will soon face its governing moment. If candidates like Brady and LePage win and lead the way in cutting spending and balancing budgets, it will do more for the movement than any floor speech Rand Paul could give. But if the same gridlock prevails, the Tea Party victories could well foreshadow a long hangover.
To read more National Journal stories about politics, click here.