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Election projections fuel Tea Party fervor

By Catherine E. Shoichet and Shannon Travis, CNN
Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio celebrates winning a U.S. Senate seat in Coral Gables, Florida, on Tuesday.
Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio celebrates winning a U.S. Senate seat in Coral Gables, Florida, on Tuesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: At least five projected Republican Senate winners are backed by the Tea Party
  • "We'll come back in 2012. We'll do it all over again," a movement leader says
  • A political analyst says Tea Party activists helped Republicans win more House seats
  • The midterm elections results are a key tool for measuring the staying power of the Tea Party

(CNN) -- Leaders of the burgeoning Tea Party movement say their projected midterm election victories should send a strong message: watch out 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.

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

"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."

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 would keep 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."

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With growing momentum after months of nationwide street protests and bus tours, Tea Party activists hoped to change the makeup of Congress and the way lawmakers were elected.

At least one of their goals seemed to be likely early Wednesday, with CNN projections indicating that Republicans held 239 House seats to the Democrats' 183 -- well over the 218 seats needed for a majority.

And in a tight battle and a significant win for Tea Party supporters, Republican candidate Pat Toomey defeated Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak to win the Pennsylvania Senate seat, CNN projects.

But even though candidates endorsed by Tea Party activists made several key gains, the movement also suffered significant losses in high-profile contests.

Far-right ideology from Tea Party candidates likely cost them Senate seats in Delaware and Nevada, according to John Avlon, a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast.

"That could make all the difference in control of the Senate, so there should be some self-analysis about whether or not some of these more extreme candidates who won these partisan primaries represented their Republican Party best," he said.

The grassroots nature of the Tea Party movement makes it difficult to define how many candidates on the ballot Tuesday were 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 were 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. At least 10 of them won, according to CNN projections.

Nine Senate candidates and four gubernatorial candidates also had strong ties to the Tea Party. Of those candidates, at least five Senate race winners were backed by Tea Party activists. And the winner of South Carolina's governor race, Nikki Haley, received Tea Party support and an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

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.

According to CNN projections, Tea Party-backed New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino lost to Democrat and former state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada avoided what many predicted would be a fatal blow to Democrats, beating out Tea Party activist Sharron Angle.

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

Still, the losing Tea Party candidates appeared to be in high spirits as they addressed supporters after results came in.

"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," O'Donnell said.

Angle thanked supporters for fighting for their principles.

"I want you to see that I'm still smiling. And it's because I still believe in American exceptionalism," she said.

No matter how many of the so-called Tea Party candidates won, the impact of the movement is expected to shift the Republican agenda to the right. Paul, on the heels of his victory, has already called for creating a Senate Tea Party caucus.

Of those surveyed in CNN exit polls, 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.

Independents surveyed were split, with 24 percent saying they were neutral toward the Tea Party, and 28 percent saying 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.

But South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint said the success of the Tea Party is rooted in the fact that its members can't be easily counted.

"One mistake we're making in this election is to suggest that it's all about the official Tea Party movement," he told CNN Tuesday. "For everyone who goes out to a rally, there are often hundreds, even thousands of people who feel the same way, who don't consider themselves a part of the Tea Party movement. I think there is an awakening going on in our country. There's a beginning of a process. It's not finalized tonight."

CNN's John Helton and Robert Yoon contributed to this report.

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