Big primary night highlights limits of tea party insurgency

Holly Bailey

Insider versus outsider: That's been the major theme of the 2010 campaign so far, and it was no different as voters in five key states, including Florida and Arizona, headed to the polls in nominating contests 10 weeks before the November midterms. But in the GOP contests that dominated the night, the influence of the tea party movement, which for the past year has fueled so much voter anger — and media coverage — showed some important signs of flagging, particularly as nominees on the right ponder the best way to frame a campaign message to appeal to independent voters in the general election campaign.

In Florida, it came down to a battle of money versus power, as wealthy candidates tried to topple establishment favorites. In the governor's race, it worked, as former health care executive Rick Scott, who portrayed himself as an outsider, running outside the GOP establishment's power structure,  narrowly defeated GOP favorite Bill McCollum, the state's attorney general. But money couldn't buy the nomination in Florida's Democratic Senate primary, where Rep. Kendrick Meek soundly defeated financier Jeff Greene, who spent $26 million on the race.

In Arizona, John McCain easily defeated former Rep. J.D. Hayworth in the state's GOP Senate primary. But it came at a huge cost to McCain — both financially and politically. McCain spent $21 million on the race — more than any non-self-funding candidate so far this campaign and more than he had spent on all of his previous Senate primary campaigns combined.

But the campaign's greatest toll may have been the damage to McCain's own political legacy. Under pressure from tea party activists, who had early targeted the senator as vulnerable to a strong primary challenge, McCain moved to the right on several issues, including immigration reform, and denied his reputation as a political maverick, willing to buck his party on matters of conscience.

Still, the Arizona race — as well as the Alaska GOP Senate primary, where Sen. Lisa Murkowski faced a Sarah Palin-backed primary opponent — again raised questions about the tea party's ultimate clout in the 2010 campaigns and how important the activists will be in the run-up to Election Day.

Tellingly, one of the conservative candidates showing early signs of recalibrating his relationship with the tea party movement was also a shoo-in in tonight's primary balloting. In Florida, Marco Rubio easily won the GOP nomination for Senate, thanks in part to backing from tea party activists. But Rubio has sought to distance himself from an affiliation with the tea party in recent months, as he tries to move toward the middle in his race against Meek and Gov. Charlie Crist, who quit the GOP to run as an independent.

In an interview with the New York Times's Jeff Zeleny, Rubio dodged the question when asked specifically if he views himself as a member of the tea party movement. "I think there is a real misunderstanding about what the tea party movement is," Rubio replied. "The tea party movement is a sentiment in America that government is broken — both parties are to blame — and if we don't do something soon, this exceptional country will be lost."

Heading into November, Rubio, like many GOP candidates across the country, faces a tough choice. He needs the support and enthusiasm of conservative activists who have given Republicans a major edge in the midterms. But he also needs to appeal to swing independent voters, who, while leaning more toward the GOP this November, are also turned off by extreme partisanship on both sides.

Voters may be eager for change, but as election results have shown, there are limits on how much change they actually want.

(Photo of Rubio by Lynne Sladsky/AP)

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