Not since the Know-Nothings faction emerged within the Whigs, has a political movement been so aptly named as the Tea Party.
While some may associate the name with Bostonians protesting tax policies, I suspect more people think of the wonder scene in "Alice in Wonderland": A simple, naive person steps through the looking glass and ends up in the company of a bunch of colorful nutjobs, consisting of two rodents and a blue collar white guy. Its always the same time of day, right around early bird specials aimed at seniors in inexpensive restaurants. The Queen of Hearts makes a crazy accusation of
running death panels committing an absurd murder. You get the idea.
The election results have some declaring the tea party is done, and that may be true - we'll need one more cycle to really tell. They do seem to be following the arc of Ross Perot's Reform Party, good for a couple of cycles and then largely irrelevant.
But I think the results show something much more interesting. When you look at which tea partiers won, and which lost, you see a consistent pattern: You could call it a glass ceiling, framed in terms of success. But if you look at in purely in terms of campaign money, its a game of Whack-A-Mole. And it doesn't bode well for the "we're not really a party" party.
Let's begin by making a distinction: there are actual tea party candidates, i.e. their success is largely a product of the movement, and then there are candidates who the tea party likes, but were around long before Rick Santelli's Chicago Tea Rap
The latter would be someone like Jeff Flake, who just won a Senate seat in Arizona. He's been around since long before the tea party, he hasn't particularly embraced it - but he'll be friendly enough to rake in some cash and votes. Marco Rubio shrewdly did the same thing in 2010. Or there's Steve King, who has kept his mouth firmly attached to the collective buttocks of the tea party. But he was the poster boy for stupid before there was a tea party.
Of the remainder, divide them in to two tiers: nationally known by most people who follow politics (say, your average kossack or freeper or those degenerates on fark). And relatively unknown.
Note I say "relatively unknown" and while this is subjective, I mean it in terms of fundraising by an opponent. While people who really follow the tea party might know who, say, Mike Pence is, I doubt even most kossacks would recognize the name. While on the other hand, the likes of Michelle Bachmann and Allen West and Todd Akin are recognizable.
That's where the glass ceiling comes in. A list of nationally known tea party candidates this cycle would be:
Bachmann won, but just barely, even after outspending her opponent 12 to 1. Seems something was underestimate: Jim Graves, Obama's coattails, how repellent Michelle Bachmann is. A little more money and ding, dong, the witch would have been dead.
The rest lost. They all stuck their heads up, getting huge amounts of attention, whether wanted (West) or otherwise (Akin, Mourdock). Big money poured in from outside. They were toast.
(Arguably, Joe Wilson might fit on this list. In case you're wondering, he won, by a wide margin)
Meanwhile, dozens of tea partiers you never heard of were re-elected. In blue Michigan, two cleared the hurde, Justin Amash and Dan Benishek.
That's your glass ceiling. When one of these extremists runs state-wide, they get enough attention to put a spotlight on every ridiculous thing they say. When they try to become a national figure from a House seat, like West, serious money can pour in to their opponent.
While they may be tempted throw incediary rhetorical bombs* to get attention, that negative attention generates opposition money.
If this effect holds, this means the tea party, even if it does retain members and enthusiasm for years to come (something I highly doubt, but that's another diary for another day), they will never be a substantial force in national politics. Because they'll never have a leader who is in Congress, and will never have more than a handful of Senators.
Any of them dumb enough (I know, I know) to stick their heads up will get Whack-A-Moled by heaping amounts of cash. Perhaps even in the primary, as party stalwarts remember the debacle of 2010's Sharron "Obtuse" Angle and Witchy McDonnell.
Without a leader, a political faction doesn't turn in to a movement. With a leader who isn't in office, the cult of personality effect can't be effectively harnessed for statewide elections.
That's the box the tea party will always be in. Unlike your first college apartment, this time it really does make sense to squash the biggest cockroaches first.
*Using generally accepted methods of measurement, incendiary rhetorical bombs are measured on a scale delineated in Coulters. One Coulter = the volume of nastiness in denigrating a 9/11 firefighter's widow.