The Pitchfork Primaries: Will Washington Get the Message?

A handpicked successor is rejected, an old lion becomes roadkill, and a powerful Senator is forced into a runoff. The first contests of 2010 prove a rebellion is brewing. But is Washington listening?

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L. to r.: William Thomas Cain / Getty Images; Ed Reinke / AP

L. to R.: Supporters of Senator Arlen Specter cheer as he arrives for a campaign stop; A supporter holds a drink as he waits for the appearance of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul

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If anyone in Washington has made hay amid this gloom, it is Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a backbencher with big ambitions and a small-government agenda. For years, DeMint has been the Cassandra of the fiscal right, warning his colleagues that they were abandoning their conservative base in pursuit of costly programs like No Child Left Behind and the Medicare drug benefit. He has seized on the Tea Party movement to advance his cause, boldly defying his party's leadership to support successful insurgent candidates in Florida, Utah and now Kentucky. "I think for most Republicans in the Senate, the Tea Party is viewed as a threat," DeMint told TIME, laughing. "To me it's the cavalry I've been waiting for."

A Revolt with Limits
Some Republicans believe that DeMint is fighting an ideological war at the expense of practical politics, sapping resources from the party and nominating extreme candidates even in moderate states. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, leader of the Republican effort to elect more Senators, said in a recent newspaper interview, "As a pragmatic matter, we've got to nominate Republicans who can get elected." In fact, even though you could hardly exaggerate the excitement in Tea Party circles about Paul's victory Tuesday, more cold-blooded Republicans whisper that his chances of winning in November are no better than even.

It's this view that argues for a paradoxical outcome in November. Suppose that the outsider victories of spring and summer can't be converted into results in the general election. It stands to reason that Democrats, with their huge majorities, should suffer the brunt of an anti-incumbent storm, but the opposition is lagging in fundraising and divided at the top. "Republicans aren't doing anything to increase the velocity of that storm," says one party elder. The GOP needs a lot of victories to take control of Congress: 41 House seats and nine seats in the Senate. The complexity and volatility of the public's anger — covering a waterfront from far left to far right — makes it impossible to predict such a one-sided outcome.

As Reagan liked to say, however: "There you go again." Seat counting is the sport of Beltway insiders, the pastime of a Permanent Party worried more about preserving its power than doing anything useful with it — and therefore just another symptom of 2010, the year of the hacked-off American. If all politics used to be local, now all politics is personal. The libertarian Paul has no greater allegiance to GOP strategy than does his maverick dad, Texas Representative Ron Paul. They're both on a family mission to throttle the government. Among Democrats, there isn't even a consistent lineup of interest groups behind the incumbent killers. Big labor, for instance, lined up with Specter and against Lincoln. The likelihood that this angry wave will produce any governing coherence is virtually nil.

What it will do — what it is already achieving in abundance — is communicate the headaches and heartaches of the American people to the grandees within the gates of Washington.

Reported by Alex Altman / Bowling Green, Jay Newton-Small / Philadelphia and Michael Scherer and Michael Duffy / Washington

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