NEW YORK - The Tea Party movement proved to be an important factor in Republican victories in some states – but exit poll data raised the question of whether Tea Party and “conservative” are pretty much interchangeable labels in the minds of voters.
Exit poll data indicate that 41 percent of those voting in House races Tuesday said they support the Tea Party. Thirty-one percent of voters said they oppose the Tea Party. And a quarter of voters take no position on the Tea Party one way or the other.
Those associating with the Tea Party voted overwhelmingly Republican this year, backing GOP candidates over Democrats by a margin of 87 percent to 11 percent.
As a percentage of the total electorate, the Tea Party contingent ranged from a high of 47 percent in Texas to a low of 32 percent in California and 26 percent in Hawaii.
Nationally in House races, the Tea Party movement gave a boost to Republican candidates in some districts.
The movement does not have the negative image that the Republican Party itself has: Only 31 percent of voters said they opposed the Tea Party movement, while 53 percent said they had an unfavorable image of the GOP.
Nearly all Tea Party Republicans feel the government is involved in too many things and as a first step, 92 percent want the health care overhaul repealed. Tea Party Republicans are also overwhelmingly opposed to same sex marriage – 84 percent are against it. And two thirds of them say that the economic stimulus hurt the country.
Non-Tea Party Republicans share similar views, but with less intensity. Two thirds think the government is involved in too many things and the health care law should be repealed – compared to more than 9-in-10 Tea Party GOPers. A smaller majority of 65 percent are against same sex marriage.
And just 40 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans say that the stimulus bill hurt the country.
In Indiana — where the Republicans picked up a Democratic-held Senate seat — 45 percent told exit poll interviewers that they supported the Tea Party movement. (Indiana narrowly backed President Barack Obama for president in 2008.)
The vast majority of those people said they voted for Republican Senate candidate Dan Coats – even though Indiana Tea Party leaders such as Tom Grimes of South Bend had disparaged Coats back in the spring as a “country club” establishment Republican who was hand-picked to run for the Senate seat by party chieftains in Washington D.C. Tea Party Indianans favored either Marlin Stutzman, who won a House seat Tuesday in Indiana, or former Rep. John Hostettler. Coats defeated both of them in the primary.
Coats – a former senator, one-time lobbyist and former envoy to Germany – does not fit the Tea Party ideal of a fiery grassroots populist untainted by the compromises and favor-swapping in the nation’s capitol.
But even if Coats is no Rand Paul — the Tea Party favorite who won the Kentucky Senate race — ultimately Coats' establishment image did not really matter. Faced with a choice between him and Democrat Brad Ellsworth, 84 percent of Tea Party voters opted for Coats.
In Pennsylvania, where Rep. Pat Toomey was locked in a tight race with Democrat Joe Sestak, Tea Party supporters accounted for 39 percent of the electorate and, as in Indiana, 89 percent of them backed the Republican.
Toomey fits the Tea Party mold: He is fiscally conservative and is former head of the small-government, low-tax advocacy group the Club for Growth.
Sen. Arlen Specter, the kind of accommodating, fiscally liberal Republican whom Tea Party activists despise, made it easy for Republicans by quitting the party last year to run as a Democrat.
Specter had beaten Toomey in a GOP primary six years ago. Specter lost the Democratic primary to Sestak.
Toomey won 89 percent of Tea Party supporters and an identical 89 percent of self-described conservatives.
Among the one quarter of Pennsylvania voters who were neutral about the Tea Party. Toomey and Sestak split them, 50/50.
In Wisconsin where conservative businessman Ron Johnson was projected by NBC News to defeat Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, Tea Party supporters accounted for 36 percent of the electorate. And the conservative-Tea Party overlap seemed to be about the same as in Pennsylvania: Johnson won 88 percent of Tea Party supporters and 88 percent of self-identified conservative voters.
Almost identical results turned up in Missouri, where Rep. Roy Blunt was projected by NBC News to be the winner of the Senate contest over Democrat Robin Carnahan. Whether voters called themselves Tea Party or conservative, they backed Blunt.
And as with Coats in Indiana, Blunt is not the perfect Tea Party hero: as former House GOP Whip he helped round up the Republican votes to pass the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program — the Wall Street bailout that small government types see as the ultimate in government interventionism. Nationally, nine in 10 Tea Party supporters want to limit government, saying it is doing too much; only 8 percent think government should play a bigger role.