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Gary Younge
Tea Party is creating waves for Republicans

David Frum should stay away from Vegas. Clearly, the man who wrote Bush's axis of evil speech likes to gamble. But he's not very good at it. Back in February, when I interviewed him for a BBC Analysis programme, he dismissed the Tea Party movement as "a couple hundred thousand people" in "Paul Revere suits" whose influence was hyped by the media. "The Tea Party movement first presents a challenge to people who cover politics," he claimed. "Because they're vivid, because we're looking for what is exciting, there's always a tendency to overplay the importance of the people who are making the most noise."

When I pointed out to him that Rand Paul – a Tea Party candidate I'd interviewed a couple of months earlier – was mounting a strong challenge against an establishment Republican candidate in Kentucky, Frum claimed it was all hype. "I would want to take some pretty good odds on that race at my bookmakers," he said. In May, Paul won the primary with a 23.4% margin. Frum would have lost his shirt.

If he had gone to Vegas last night he would have witnessed Nevada become the fourth state to see its Republican senatorial candidacy fall to a Tea Party candidate along with Utah, Florida and Kentucky. Regionally, the success of these Tea Party candidates has been patchy. They fared poorly in primaries in Texas and California and elsewhere. But given that they did not even exist two years ago it is also quite impressive.

The question five months ago was whether the Tea Party would move away and start their own party. Today it looks increasingly like the Republican establishment has to decide whether to come in under the Tea Party or oppose it from the outside. That is effectively what has happened in Florida, where the moderate Charlie Crist was ousted and is now standing as an independent. It also partially reflects what took place in Pennsylvania, where Arlen Specter realised the Republican party was too rightwing for him to win in and so swapped sides, effectively vacating the terrain for the right.

Electorally speaking, these fissures within the Republican party are the only show in town where the primaries are concerned. If there is an anti-incumbent mood, it is not playing out initially within the Democratic primaries. But the rise of the Tea Party's influence raises two challenges for the Democrats as well as Republicans.

The liberal orthodoxy is that the further the Republicans shift to the right the better it is for the Democrats, since they could not possibly win. That is a mistake. It is certainly true that in Nevada, the polls suggest Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid stands a far better chance of victory against Sharron Angle, the Tea Party victor, than her less extreme challenger. "It looks like good news for Harry Reid," said University of Nevada, Las Vegas, political scientist David DaMore. "She has pretty well defined herself as a niche candidate. How does she break out of that mould to a broader audience?"

Similarly, in Kentucky, Paul has seen his lead against his Democratic rival shrink from 25 points to eight in a month. The lure of the Tea Party is fading, but its base is motivated and supported by huge TV and radio outlets that can prolong its life. In both cases, however, the Republicans are still winning.

One of the key determinants of how well they will perform against Democrats in November will hinges on will be how much Barack Obama can deliver in terms of tangible material advances. This will have an impact, both in attracting moderates and mobilising his somewhat disaffected base. People are impatient to see improvements in the economy and healthcare in particular: areas where advances are being made, albeit gradually. In all this, for some his performance over the BP oil spill is metaphoric – an inability to articulate and reflect the public's urgency and discontent.

It's too early to make any sensible predictions about presidential hopefuls, let alone the mid-terms. But if I were in Vegas I would put my money on a shift even further to the right for the Republicans, along with some significant victories that fall short of a landslide.

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