Republicans: Tea Party extremists go down in flames but centre-right thrives

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The Independent US

It was always going to be a dry old do, since the host is a teetotal Southern Baptist. But it was impossible to escape the feeling of deflation which swept through the ballroom of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas late on Tuesday when Sharron Angle, darling of the Tea Party movement, saw her bid for the US Senate roundly rejected by the voters of Nevada.

Nothing kills a "victory party" more comprehensively than staggering defeat, and the excited chatter of a few hundred guests gave way to stunned silence when Fox News announced that Angle, an ultra-conservative Republican, was running at least five points behind Democrat Harry Reid.

The scale of her defeat confounded expectations, since the race had been pegged as too close to call. It suggests that as many people were put off by Angle's extreme anti-government message as were attracted by it. And since several of the unconventional Tea Party champions also stumbled on Tuesday, a question mark hangs over the libertarian movement's ability to translate its high profile into electoral success.

Victory for Rand Paul, in Kentucky, may have heartened right-wingers, but many of their other favourites managed to lose, particularly some of the political novices endorsed by Sarah Palin, whose star may be about to fall. Several of her much-vaunted "Mamma Grizzlies" failed, including Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, and Carly Fiorina in California.

In Palin's home state of Alaska, an eccentric Senate candidate whom she plucked from obscurity, Joe Miller, appears to have been trounced by Linda Murkowski, the woman he beat to the Republican nomination. The count is ongoing, but she seems on course to triumph thanks to the support of tens of thousands of "write in" voters.

Looking ahead to 2012, the Republicans have thinking to do. Tuesday was a great night for the party, but it could and perhaps should have been better. Several too-close-to-call races went the wrong way, and the majority of Tea Party successes were in House races, in which they have smaller constituencies to influence than state-wide Senate or gubernatorial ones.

As the Republican Party ponders its future, it would also be wise to consider that two prominent Tea Party victors – Marco Rubio, a new senator in Florida, and Nikki Haley, who won the South Carolina governor's race – had a profile that helped them reach beyond the tub-thumpers: Rubio is a Cuban-American, Haley is Indian-American.

Both are now been talked of as potential 2012 presidential players, most likely as running mates. Unlike some of the more colourful right-wing candidates in their movement, they appear to boast credible political credentials, and seem unlikely to commit gaffes or stumble discussing basic issues.

Sharron Angle was quite the reverse. The Nevada race should on paper have been there for the taking. The state has unemployment levels of almost 15 per cent, while Reid's disapproval ratings were well over 50 per cent.

But in the end voters were left cold by her eccentric campaign and endless gaffes: in recent weeks, she called the unemployed "spoiled" and in a misguided attempt to discuss multiculturalism told a class of Latino schoolchildren they "looked more Asian".

Her policy positions also appear to alienate independent voters, and some Republicans. A free-marketeer, she is also a social conservative who favours outlawing abortion in all circumstances, withdrawing America from the UN, and abolishing social security.

Hispanic voters, who make up about 12 per cent of Nevada's electoral roll, were upset by her adverts on immigration, which portrayed them, broadly, as criminals. In the end, roughly 90 per cent of them backed Reid.

Adding to evidence that centrist Republicans may actually be the night's big winners was the result in Nevada's governor's race, where exactly the same electorate that rejected Sharron Angle voted a mainstream Republican candidate, the Hispanic Brian Sandoval, into office by a wide margin.