The tea party movement was one of 2010′s major political story lines–and it launched some striking new political careers in the midterm election.
Below, we take a look at five of the most successful tea party candidates of the past year:
1. Marco Rubio: This Florida Republican insider began the campaign cycle as a major underdog, but with the help of the tea party movement, Rubio is now Florida’s next senator. Rubio launched his candidacy as a state lawmaker with little national name recognition–but my the midpoint in the GOP primary battle, his support was strong enough to drive the state’s popular sitting Republican Gov. Charlie Crist into an independent run. As a young conservative Hispanic, Rubio brings a new face and new energy to the GOP. Expect to see much more of him in the years ahead– Rubio will play a key role in 2012, when Florida again figures to be a critical swing state in presidential balloting.
2. Rand Paul: One of the most ardent small-government conservatives on this year’s ballot, the Kentucky senator-elect represents a big win for the tea party faithful, who know he comes from an unassailable conservative pedigree. Paul is the son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the insurgent 2008 GOP presidential candidate who some tea partiers regard as the true founder of their movement. Paul beat back a tough Democratic opponent, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, and overcame a series of gaffes and scandals that were magnified in the national press but gained little traction with his home-state electorate.
3. Nikki Haley: Haley’s win in the South Carolina GOP’s gubernatorial primary signaled to many that the tea party had a new rising star on its hands. Sarah Palin had already attached herself to Haley–whom the onetime Alaska governor singled out in an endorsement spot among her original group of “Mama Grizzlies.” Haley also overcame scandalous talk about her personal life to become the first woman and first Indian-American elected governor of her state.
4. Mike Lee: Lee didn’t garner the sort of media attention that some tea party stars did, but that’s mostly because Lee was expected to blow away his opponent in November– and he did. After defeating Utah’s GOP incumbent Bob Bennett at the state nominating convention, Lee easily won the open Utah Senate race. His win proved to many that the tea party doesn’t have to go mainstream to find success. Lee early on earned the support of South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint–the most influential lawmaker now allied with the tea party movement. As the 112th Congress gavels to order, look to Lee to be one of the louder tea party voices in Washington.
5. Raul Labrador: Major challenges threatened of Idaho’s new representative elect throughout the year. First, he had to face a well-financed establishment favorite Vaughn Ward, in the GOP primary. Then in November, he faced Walt Minnick–a Democratic incumbent who was so conservative that he won his own tea party endorsements. But even though Minnck enjoyed an early polling and fundraising advantage in the general-election campaign, Labrador was able to ride the tea party wave into Congress.
(Photo of Marco Rubio: AP/Harry Hamburg)