WASHINGTON (AP) - Voters embracing the tea party's conservative throw-the-bums-out anthem sent two of its leading conservative voices to Washington and another to the South Carolina governor's mansion, while unlikely Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell kept Republicans from picking up a seat.
The victories for Rand Paul and Marco Rubio in the Senate and Nikki Haley as governor gave tea party activists three Cinderella stories for the 2010 campaign. All were long shots when they declared their candidacies but won over voters with their Washington outsider, anti-tax campaigns.
"There's a tea party tidal wave, and we're sending a message," said Paul, a first time candidate from Kentucky and son of libertarian hero Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. He promised to lead a movement for fiscal sanity, limited constitutional government, and balanced budgets and begin working to build a tea party caucus in the Senate first thing Wednesday morning.
"We've come to take our government back," Paul said.
The question for Election Day was whether the tea party candidates would end up hurting the Republican Party more than they helped by putting up some less viable candidates. That appeared to be the case in Delaware, where tea party-fueled candidacies O'Donnell for the Senate and Glen Urquhart for the state's Republican-held House seat gave Democrats easy victories that wouldn't have been expected early in the campaign.
Rubio and Paul were elected to seats held by Republicans, so they did not contribute to GOP hopes for gains in the Senate. And Republican leaders may get a challenge from both of them and other tea party lawmakers who vowed to put their conservative principles before party.
"Our nation is headed in the wrong direction and both parties are to blame," said Rubio, a former Florida House speaker and son of Cuban exiles. He said his election was part of "a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be not so long ago."
Rep. John Boehner, who planned to take over as speaker if Republicans won the House, assured tea party activists from his Ohio district in a Skype call after poll closing that he would never let them down, Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said.
Candidates with tea party support were on the ballot in more than 70 House districts, seven races for Senate and three for governor.
Among the winners in the House were Indiana Republicans Marlin Stutzman and Todd Young. Young was not the first choice of many in the movement, but tea party groups signed on after the Marine veteran won the GOP primary and helped him knock off incumbent Rep. Baron Hill. Stutzman is a state representative whose political career predated the tea party but said the traditional GOP should work with the movement to push conservative values.
Indiana's third tea party candidate, state Rep. Jackie Walorski, was not able to defeat incumbent Rep. Joe Donnelly, who ran in an anti-Democratic climate as a moderate who would stand up to his party's speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
The grassroots tea party movement, without any official platform or national organization, drew a committed following even though it didn't exist in the last congressional election two years ago. Four in 10 voters considered themselves tea party supporters, according to preliminary exit poll results. And nearly nine in 10 of those tea party supporters voted for the Republican House candidate.
But the tea party also was a polarizing force among some voters - about a quarter of voters said they considered their vote a message of support for the tea party and nearly as many said their vote was meant to signal opposition to the movement. About half said the tea party wasn't a factor.
The movement's candidates had no unified agenda, but often pushed for a balanced budget, elimination of the federal debt, repeal of the health care law and strict interpretation of the Constitution. The AP's polling analysis found nearly nine in 10 tea party supporters wanted to repeal health care and felt President Barack Obama's policies hurt the country. Only about a quarter of non-tea party supporters felt that way.
Politically, tea partyers vowed to turn the Republican Party toward conservatism. Some Republicans warned the movement could give Democrats an opportunity for electoral victories by running too far to the right. In some cases - such as Senate races in Florida and Alaska - tea party candidates sparked a three-way race.
Tea party candidates weren't always easy to identify since the movement is a network of loosely connected community groups - not an established political party with official nominees. Even within the tea party there often was disagreement among rival groups about the legitimacy of candidates claiming tea party credentials.
In identifying candidates, The Associated Press assessed factors including a candidate's history with the movement, the involvement of local leaders and activists in a campaign, endorsements or support from tea party-affiliated groups and whether a candidate is running on a platform that dovetails with the movement's agenda.