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Tea Party Inc. Triumphs in S.C. and Utah, Even Beating Strom Thurmond's Son

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As predicted, South Carolina legislator Nikki Haley handily won her run-off race in yesterday's GOP primary. Haley, a favorite of Tea Party bigs, battled unsubstantiated allegations of infidelity, doubts about the sincerity of her conversion to Christianity from the Sikh faith, as well as the lobbing of an ethic slur at her by a fellow legislator.

The allegations of sexual impropriety, given a total lack of evidence produced by her accusers, may have actually played to her favor. But her big boost came from Tea Party icon Sarah Palin, who sent Haley's numbers soaring with her endorsement. (Haley also reaped points from the endorsement of South Carolina's former First Lady Jenny Sanford, who left her husband, Mark, after his famous disappearance for an ostensible trek on the Appalachian Trail that took him to the arms of his Argentine mistress.)

In her run-off, Haley faced U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, who never was a strong candidate, given his vote for the Troubled Assets Recovery Act.

But a more telling sign of a shift in GOP dynamics was the defeat of Paul Thurmond, son of Strom Thurmond, in a primary for a congressional seat.  He was defeated by Tim Scott, who will likely become South Carolina's first black congressman in a century. Paul Thurmond's dad longest-serving senator in U.S. history and a South Carolina institution, made his name as a hard-core segregationist.

Both Thurmond and Scott drew support from various factions of the Tea Party movement, but Scott won the love of what I call Tea Party Inc. -- the big guns at the national level, such as Sarah Palin, Sen. Jim DeMint and the Club for Growth. Thurmond's Tea Party support was from local groups.

A similar situation played out in Utah last night, where attorney Mike Lee, a former clerk to Justice Samuel Alito (back when Alito was a federal judge in Jersey), beat Tim Bridgewater, a local businessman (and business partner of Neil Bush) in a GOP run-off for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Bob Bennett. While leaders of some local Tea Party groups expressed support for Bridgewater, Lee had the support of FreedomWorks and Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund.

The Tea Party movement may have begun as an organic, grass-roots uprising. But national-level players -- what I call Tea Party Inc. -- are now picking the "viable" Tea Party candidates, squeezing out the electoral influence of local activists.