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The meteoric rise of the tea party -- and the limits of its power

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Ed Reinke/AP

(Read caption) Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R) of Ky. and his wife Kelley arrive at his victory celebration in Bowling Green, Ky., on Nov. 2. The tea party's influence could be felt in individual races such as Rand Paul's in Kentucky, but perhaps more keenly in its ability to enchant the crucial independent vote.

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For a self-described ragtag band of political scoundrels, they didn't do all that bad.

After a year and a half of stirring America's political pot, the tea party and its followers on Election Day won about 35 percent of the seats they targeted. The tea party's influence could be felt in individual races such as Marco Rubio's in Florida and Rand Paul's in Kentucky, but perhaps more keenly in its ability to enchant the crucial independent vote. That vote was a key factor in what President Obama termed a "shellacking" of Democrats on Tuesday.

Nevertheless, the small-government, antitax buzz of the tea party may have been more of a flutter, at least on the national level: National tea party candidates, especially in super-crucial Senate races, tended toward the fringe, and the defeat of Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, and probably Joe Miller in Alaska doomed a GOP takeover of the Senate.

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