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Did the tea party cost Republicans the Senate?

Tea party backed Senate candidates in several states significantly underperformed more establishment Republican candidates running on the same ballot last Tuesday, data that provides further evidence that the tea party movement may have cost the GOP seats.

Ever since Republicans fell short of a Senate majority last week, tensions have been simmering beneath the surface about tea party candidates who upset the establishment in the primary and then fell short in the general election - candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware.

Establishment Republicans -- including Rep. Spencer Bachus (Ala.) -- have argued that the tea party likely cost the party those three Senate seats, which may have been enough to bring them into a 50-50 tie.

Tea Party advocates like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) have attempted to throw water on this idea, making the case that tea party enthusiasm drove GOP gains broadly. "That is a very silly thing to say," DeMint said on NBC's Meet the Press this weekend. "The tea party is responsible for just about every Republican elected around the country."

Though Republican strategists acknowledge the tea party's energy helped their cause broadly, they note that the vast majority of the candidates most closely associated with the movement lost.

Losing, of course, does not necessarily make one a bad candidate (see: Clinton, Bill), so we need to dig a little further.

How then to judge whether tea party candidates underperformed a generic Republican? Compare them to other members of their party who were running downballot.

So The Fix looked at Angle, Buck, O'Donnell and two other faces of the tea party: New York governor candidate Carl Paladino and Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul.

The five of them, it turns out, ran behind the vast majority of other Republican candidates -- and sometimes by wide margins.

In almost every case, they ran behind more mainstream Republican candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and other statewide offices. And in no case did the tea party candidate run significantly ahead of another statewide Republican candidate.

Here's a rundown:

* Angle: She underperformed the GOP governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state candidates - all by more than 6 percent. She also ran six points behind the combined total of the Republican candidates in all three U.S. House districts. Looking a little further downballot, she lost by about the same amount as GOP candidates in the state treasurer and controller races.

* Buck: He underperformed the GOP secretary of state, treasurer, and attorney general candidates -- all winners -- and finished with less of the vote than the GOP candidates in all 7 House districts won combined. (Note: the open governor's race in Colorado doesn't provide a great comparison, since it wound up a three-way contest after the GOP nominee - another tea partier - imploded.)

* O'Donnell: She underperformed the GOP treasurer and auditor candidates by at least 9 points each. She also ran slightly behind the GOP candidate in the state's lone House district, another tea partier who beat the establishment favorite in a primary.

* Paladino: He underperformed the GOP's comptroller and attorney general candidates, both by double digits. He also ran eight points behind the combined total of the House candidates in all 29 House districts and lost by slightly more than Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's (D) unheralded GOP opponent.

* Paul: Despite winning his race easily, other Republicans in red Kentucky did even better than Paul. He underperformed the total take of the GOP candidates in all 6 of the state's House districts by more than 6 percent. There were no statewide contests on the ballot.

These are the best-known faces of the tea party, but they weren't the only ones to underperform.

Among House candidates, Iraq veteran Jesse Kelly, who lost to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), state Sen. Brad Zaun, who lost to Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), and even state Rep. Raul Labrador, who beat Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), all fared less well in their districts than other Republican candidates running for office in the state.

All of these examples are races where the tea party beat the establishment favorite in a primary, and the data certainly lend credence to the establishment's case that Republicans would have been better off with the establishment candidates.

Even if those Republican candidates had just run on-par with other Republican candidates in their states, it seems logical that Republicans would have won Senate seats in Colorado and Nevada -- where the GOP cleaned up in other statewide races -- and possibly even Delaware, where the two major parties split the treasurer and auditor races.

(Of course, Senate races are much more high profile -- and expensive -- contests than races for lieutenant governor, attorney general or other downballot offices. As such, they take on a life of their own and make direct comparisons imperfect.)

Did these tea party candidates cost Republicans a Senate majority? Probably not. But it might have cost them a seat ... or three.

By Aaron Blake  | November 10, 2010; 10:53 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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