Though some stubbornly debate whether the votes cast for Ralph Nader in 2,000 allowed George Bush to win that election, it is not difficult to make the case that the 2000's could have looked a lot different if the Green Party candidate had not participated in the election. The convential wisdom says that more Nader voters would have otherwise voted for Al Gore than George Bush. There are many examples of how removing this drain on the Gore vote could have turned the election in his favor; Florida only serves as the best of them. Though many remember the Sunshine State for recounts, hanging chads and judicial intervention, less remember that if Nader hadn't ran and even a tiny majority of his 97,000 votes had gone to Gore, the former Vice President would have been sending moving vans down Pennsylvania Ave. instead of down to Tennessee in January of 2001. However, though Bush, and therefore the Republican Party, benefitted from the impact of a third party's participation in 2000, a new third party movement could very well cost the GOP seats in this fall's midterm elections.
On the back of anger over healthcare and low approval ratings many expect that grassroots support will allow Republicans to make up seats or even gain majorites in each house of Congress this fall. However, the very same voters who have become most upset with the Democrats since President Obama took office could ensure their continued dominance of the legislative branch if the GOP does not play its cards correctly. This is because it is unclear whether the groundswell of grassroots support, best exemplified by the Tea Party, will galvanize conservatives or fracture them. For example, in some cases, the Tea Party movement has embraced Republican lawmakers and vice versa. In others, there has been criticism of those conservatives who aren't 'conservative enough,' and even alliances with other small but established parties such as the Libertarians. Like the Greens proved in 2000, it is possible that even a fraction of votes that would otherwise go to Republican candidates this fall going to a different 'Tea Party Approved' candidate could cost the GOP elections.
Analyzing elections is tricky business at best, and it is difficult to know exactly how things could play out between now and November. However, Democratic leadership might not be as afraid of the Tea Party as the voices of the movement claim. Grassroots movements can be powerful things. However, that power can be unpredictable, and in this case, it might not be clear what its impact is until after election day.