2008 was a dismal time for the Republican Party. They had sunk so low, and become so bound to Bush's failed presidency, that they had to fragment their brand in order to achieve legitimacy again. Make no mistake: Dick Armey's Tea Parties were a brilliant idea. They repositioned the Republican Party, turning back the clock from George W. Bush's inarguably toxic ideas all the way to the 1980s, to Ronald Reagan's imaginary small-government, populist conservative movement. The Tea Parties changed the conversation in a striking way and rebranded the monstrous Republican Party into something palatable for the majority of the electorate.
But now the hard work begins for the Republican Party. The most high-profile (which is to say crazily militant) Teabagger candidates were defeated last night, or (in the case of Rand Paul* and a few others) they were assimilated into the Republican mainstream. Now the GOP is going to have to convince the perennially outraged Teabagger voters who pushed them over the top across the country to come home, to re-graft the "renegade" Tea Party brand into the general Republican Party. Having gotten their base fired up about small government triggering a prosperous economy, they will have very little time to make good on their promises. I expect that the fired-up base will evaporate from disgust at the realities of the political process in the next few years, and they'll withdraw from the political process, waiting for the next bullshit populist storm to hit in a decade or two so they can rain their vengeance down on the country again.
There will be more Tea Parties, of course, with the requisite signs and fist-shaking and outrage. The Republicans will try to stretch their sub-brand out, try to levy the Tea Parties into some genuine 2012 momentum, but the moment has passed. You can only run against everything for so long before the fury dries up. It was a one-time trick to involve every single possible Republican voter in America. I suspect that a lot of the voters who were suckered in by this brilliant marketing scheme will soon be overtaken by apathy once again. The Tea Party died yesterday in everything but name.
* It will be especially interesting to watch Rand Paul in the Senate—we'll see if his Junior Dr. No schtick can work in the Senate as effectively as his dad has made it work in the House. People generally expect their senators to advocate for federal dollars for the state. If Paul tries to be as obstinate as he's been advertising, he'll quickly learn that what the people actually want and what the people say they want are two completely different things.