The post-primary tea party tea leaves

In their never-ending quest to predict the outcome of the next congressional elections, the professional crystal-ballers peered into another blurred sphere this week after the latest round of primary elections.

The conventional wisdom is that 2010 is the year of the outsider, spurred by high federal spending, high unemployment, slow economic recovery and disappointment in Washington and President Barack Obama — and that view got a boost in the Senate Republican primary in Alaska.

Incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski apparently was defeated, barring a surge in the late counting, by a little-known outsider named Joe Miller, who was backed by the tea party movement and its top celebrity, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Mr. Miller, a lawyer and West Point graduate who served in the Gulf War, offered voters undiluted anti-government proposals, including getting rid of such allegedly socialist schemes as Social Security, Medicare and the Department of Education.

Although Ms. Palin did little personal campaigning for Mr. Miller in the state she once ran, he may have been benefited from an in-state history of political feud between Ms. Palin and the Murkowski family. In her successful run for governor in 2006, Ms. Palin defeated then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, the father of the current Senate incumbent.

Earlier, in 2002, Governor Murkowski bypassed Ms. Palin in appointing his daughter Lisa to a Senate vacancy. And when Ms. Palin quit the governorship in 2009, after her failed bid for the vice presidency on the John McCain ticket, Lisa Murkowski openly accused her of leaving Alaska in the lurch.

This week, on the same night insider Murkowski was shocked by outsider Miller for the GOP Senate nomination, longtime Republican Senate insider John McCain easily turned back the challenge of another tea party favorite, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, in Arizona.

Mr. McCain, however, had taken note of the increasing rightward shift in his party and argued that he was not the maverick he repeatedly had been called prior to his Republican presidential nomination in 2008. And he brought Ms. Palin into the state to campaign for him.

In Florida, another tea party darling, former state House speaker Marco Rubio — whose strong beginning in the Senate race chased Republican Gov. Charlie Crist out of the GOP to run as an independent — became the party's nominee.

The Democratic nominee will be liberal Congressman Kendrick Meek, who is strong in the African-American community in his South Florida district but not well known outside it. But with Mr. Crist possibly eating into the Republican vote as a moderate independent, Mr. Meek could surprise.

These latest results are more of the mixed bag delivered earlier by 2010 primary voters concerning insiders and outsiders. In Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln survived her primary challenge despite heavy union opposition. In Colorado, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet did the same with strong support from Mr. Obama and the national party.

But also in Colorado, former county prosecutor Ken Buck rode tea party intensity to the GOP gubernatorial nomination over the party establishment's candidate, as did tea party favorite Linda McMahon in Connecticut. In Georgia, however, the Palin-backed candidate, former state secretary of state Karen Handel, lost the party's gubernatorial nomination.

Despite further tea party muscle in some of these races, Democratic strategists continue to hope the movement's opposition to established federal social programs — and the eccentricities of some of its advocates, including Ms. Palin — will work to their advantage in November.

This factor may be decisive in what could be the most important congressional race to the Democrats, the bid for reelection of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada. The victory in the GOP primary of tea party choice Sharron Angle, who has advocated privatization of Social Security — that dead-duck brainstorm of the George W. Bush years — is regarded as a political life preserver for Mr. Reid.

Heading into the November elections, many Republican strategists are looking to the tea party movement warily. They recognize its success in generating turnout at anti-Washington rallies and in some GOP primaries for House, Senate and gubernatorial races.

At the same time, they are cognizant of possible backlash of the sort that the Reid campaign in Nevada is counting on to save the Democratic Senate leader. It injects an uncertainty in the earlier high Republican optimism about regaining control of Congress this fall.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is