Tuesday night was not a good night for the Tea Party. Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate and Tea Partier, Ken Cuccinelli -- the guy who wanted to outlaw sodomy and make women have ultrasounds before terminating a pregnancy - lost. Cuccinelli lost moderate voters by 18 percent.
Joining him in ignominious defeat in Virginia was lieutenant governor candidate E.W. Jackson, who said, "It was God's plan to beget the Tea Party." (And here's Jackson on the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell: "How in the world can we expect our military to be blessed by the hand of almighty God if we allow our military to become the equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah? God is not pleased").
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In Alabama, an angry Tea Partier wanna-be congressman -- so angry that even the major Tea Party groups stayed away from giving him campaign cash -- lost to an establishment-backed GOP candidate in a runoff. Moderate cum establishment Republican Chris Christie won in a landslide victory in blue New Jersey.
Does this mean the tea party is now small beer? No, just as much as the media overreacted in 2010 -- the Tea Party is the new force in American politics -- neither should we declare the imminent demise of the Tea Party from a number of off-year elections. The Tea Party caucus remains in both chambers of Congress and if the Republicans fail to do away with the Hastert Rule, it will continue to exercise outsize influence.
But Tuesday did tell us this: in off-year elections, only the most committed of voters vote. And the relevant races, especially the Alabama congressional runoff, show that the shutdown, the blistering rhetoric (e.g., "send Obama back to Kenya"), Ted Cruz's antics, and the overall commitment to ideological purity over the task of governing, has sent the message to voters, especially those who are paying the most attention, that the Tea Party's extremism is problematic if the government wants to solve problems. And this is a bit of salve for the soul of American politics.