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Election projections fuel Tea Party fervor

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Gergen says Tea Party activists helped Republicans win more House seats
  • "We'll come back in 2012. We'll do it all over again," a movement leader says
  • CNN projects that Tea Party-backed candidates Rubio and Paul will win
  • Tuesday's elections are a key moment for measuring the staying power of the Tea Party

(CNN) -- As projections trickling in Tuesday showed several key Tea Party wins in Tuesday's midterm elections, movement leaders said their victories should send a strong message: watch out for the Tea Party in 2012.

"The Republicans need to know, we've done it in 2010. If they don't do the right thing in the next couple of years, it's not a problem. We'll come back in 2012. We'll do it all over again. We'll replace them with people that will uphold [our] principles," said Mark Meckler, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots -- one of the movement's largest groups.

After CNN projected that two Tea Party-backed Republican candidates would win their Senate races -- Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida -- Meckler said the movement remained committed to holding Republicans accountable.

"Frankly, the Republicans blew it over a very long period of time. The largest deficit ever run up in history, before the current administration, was run up by George Bush," he said. "Our job is to reverse that course and not allow any party to ever do that again."

Tuesday's midterm elections were seen as a crucial moment for measuring the staying power of the Tea Party movement, which was born of frustration with the political establishment and steeped in economic anxiety.

After months of nationwide street protests and bus tours, the movement hoped to change the current makeup of Congress and forever change the way lawmakers are elected.

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"I don't think there's any question that if it were not for the Tea Party, the Republican margin in the House of Representatives would not be as high as it's going to be," CNN senior political analyst David Gergen said Tuesday night. "They gave a lot of enthusiasm and fuel to the Republican Party."

The grassroots nature of the Tea Party movement makes it difficult to define how many candidates on the ballot Tuesday are affiliated with it. There is no official entity that determines who is a Tea Party candidate.

Before polls opened Tuesday, CNN analyzed races across the country to identify candidates who are Tea Party activists or whose campaigns were helped significantly by the Tea Party movement.

From the list of the CNN 100 -- the top 100 House races in the country -- 21 candidates were closely connected with the movement's activists and ideology. Eight Senate candidates and four gubernatorial candidates also had strong ties to the Tea Party. In addition, various national and local Tea Party organizations endorsed more than 100 candidates in races across the country.

The rise of the conservative Tea Party movement added a new element to this year's election cycle, roiling Republican races by boosting little-known and inexperienced candidates to victory over mainstream figures in GOP primaries across the country.

But not all of them emerged victorious Tuesday.

In Delaware, Democrat Chris Coons defeated Tea Party-backed Republican nominee Christine O'Donnell, CNN projects.

But O'Donnell appeared to be in high spirits as she addressed supporters at a rally Tuesday night.

"We were victorious, because the Delaware political system will never be the same. That's a great thing. The Republican Party will never be the same," she said.

No matter how many of the so-called Tea Party candidates win against Democratic opponents Tuesday, the impact of the movement is expected to shift the Republican agenda to the right.

CNN exit polls asked voters whether the Tea Party was a factor in how they cast their ballots Tuesday.

Of those surveyed, 23 percent said one reason for their vote Tuesday was to send a message in favor of the Tea Party, 18 percent said they cast their ballots against the Tea Party and 56 percent of respondents said the Tea Party was not a factor in their decision.

Of independents surveyed, 24 percent said they were neutral toward the Tea Party, and 28 percent said they opposed the Tea Party in this election.

Exit poll results indicated a stronger showing for the Tea Party among older voters, with 47 percent of those 60 and older saying they support the Tea Party and only 26 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 saying they support the movement.

CNN's Shannon Travis, Catherine Shoichet, John Helton and Robert Yoon contributed to this report.