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Analysis: The Tea Party's Not Over

From 10,000 feet up, it doesn't appear much happened on Primary Day in New Jersey. The drive-by media headlined it as "All House Incumbents Prevail. No Tea Party Here." Democrats in Washington can breathe a sigh of relief and focus on, say, Nevada. But politics is always more about local knowledge and personalities that take time and experience to fully grasp. And the message from Tuesday's results isn't quite as simple as those headlines make it out to be.

In places like Republican Morris County, incumbent career county and municipal elected officials were turned out by the wave of more conservative voters who came out. Even though in Morris's 11th Congressional District, Republican Congressman Rodney Frelinghysen won easily with 32,000 votes, more than 10,000 Republicans voted for Richard Luzzi, the Tea Party option.

Further south, the Tea Party cup runneth over. Take what happened down on the Jersey shore's 7th District, where GOP party insider and major fundraiser Diane Gooch had all the "official" Republican organizations lined up like happy dancing elephants. That was no easy feat with a district that sprawls through portions of Middlesex, Monmouth, Somerset and Union counties. Gooch, an independently wealthy weekly newspaper publisher, had the "regular" GOP endorsements in all those places. She spent well over $400,000. But when the smoke cleared the morning after the primary, it was "Tea Party Approved" Anna Little who had the most votes.

Little, an immigration attorney and the mayor of Highlands, declared victory despite the razor thin margin of just dozens of votes out of the more than 13,000 cast Tuesday. An official confirmation will have to await a re-count and tabulation of so-called provisional ballots.

But for now, Little, who had raised just $22,000 in her shoestring campaign, has scored an upset that presents a major ideological challenge to a regular Republican Party organization just barely on the comeback trail thanks to freshly elected Gov. Chris Christie.

The state GOP, with standard bearer Christie, was just beginning to get traction as a national voice for cutting public spending and rolling back taxes. At home, Chrisitie is helping the "regular" GOP see daylight after years of being in political exile in Trenton. Propsects for ever controlling either legislative chamber, or the governership for that matter, had seemed so remote for so long. The Republicans could not prevail even after the departure of scandal plagued Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey mid-term. For years, it seemed the state GOP was on the course to becoming the permanant minority party as demographics and the influx of more diverse and liberal ex-New Yorkers were painting the Garden State bluer and bluer with each election.

As the state headed into the conclusion of the first decade of the 21st century, its Congressional delegation reflected this partisan shift. In 2008, the victory of Democatic State Sen. Jon Adler in the 3rd District, where GOP Rep. Jim Saxton had held sway for a generation, turned the New Jersey House delegation even deeper blue, with the Democrats now holding eight of the state's 13 House seats.
In the 6th Congressional District, if the Teaparty's Little holds on through the Byzantine recount and "certification," she will get to take on veteran Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone. For years, it had been Pallone who at all hours would be the single sentry in an empty house chamber playing to the C-Span cameras for "meaningful health care reform." No doubt the Fall general election will be an referendum on so-called "Obamacare."

As the congressman from a district where the Jersey Shore is the main attraction, Pallone has also been pretty zealous about protecting the environment. So  right now, he has spoken out against the Obama administration's plans to move ahead with the preliminary geo-analysis to open up deep water oil drilling off the Mid- and Southern Atlantic coastline.

For either party, reconciling a national and "mainstream" tone can be tough when local concerns become the hot political driver. How to grow the tree when the roots are on fire? For Pallone, that means coping with a POTUS now shellacked in big oil. For the Republican regular "mainsteam" organization, it means reconciling the victory of Tea Party-approved Little, backed by the hard core anti-abortion Eagle Forum, within the party that includes pro-choice former Gov. Tom Kean -- all by November.

And for Tea Partiers who become official GOP candidates, there is always the potential of being hit by the "Rand" effect just as they step into the bright lights of national scrutiny. For now, Little probably is best off avoiding the national limelight that gave Kentucky GOP nominee Rand Paul such a Tea Party hangover.

For the New Jersey GOP, the hard political reality is that tens of thousands of registered Republicans picked "other" on primary day. Generally those voters went for candidates on ballot lines like "Constitutional Conservative." Come November they are going to need everyone of them. And they won't be able to do that by "moderating" their Fall message. But even before the first Fall ballot is cast, the right wing revival is having an impact even on Democrats.

Consider Democratic Freshman Congressman John Adler--one of the first Democrats in the state to buck the party machine and back then-Sen. Barack Obama for president. Scroll forward to crunch time on Obamacare when every House vote mattered. Adler voted no.