Earlier this week, FDL’s Jon Walker mentioned polling that showed generic Republicans with a slight edge, 42% to 39%, over generic Democrats in the run-up to the 2014 elections. (I knew about this earlier because various Democratic groups had been sending me fundraising emails designed to capitalize on the panic the news might bring among Democratic donors. By the way, this is actually a slight improvement from a December CNN poll, when Republicans held a 49%-44% advantage.)

Similar (if not worse) polling numbers obtained in 2010, when the Republicans were widely expected to retake the Senate as well as the House. But while the Republicans did retake the House, they didn’t retake the Senate in 2010. Why? In large part, it was because of a split in the conservative ranks, a well-funded split known as the “Tea Party”.

Much as the Greens helped cost Gore Florida in 2000, much to Ralph Nader’s joy, the Tea Party cost the Republicans their shot at taking the Senate in 2010. The key difference is that whereas the Greens sucked up general-election voters who would have otherwise voted for Gore (60% of all Florida Green voters would have been Gore voters had Nader not been on the ballot in 2000), the Tea Party in 2010, by knocking off viable Republican candidates in favor of people like Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, both energized Democratic general-election voters and demoralized Republican general-election voters. (The Tea Party also helped out the Democrats in at least one governor’s race: Instead of allowing Rick Lazio to run against Andrew Cuomo, the Tea Party succeeded in getting the horrific nutjob moneybags Carl Paladino as the nominee instead, which cost the GOP its chance at retaking the Governor’s Mansion that George Pataki had not too long before occupied for twelve years.)

And guess what? The Tea Party’s poised to do it again:

Several Republican senators said Wednesday they were surprised and angered after a news report revealed that their GOP colleague, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, made a recent fundraising appeal for a tea party group that is trying to defeat GOP incumbents it doesn’t believe are conservative enough.

The senators said Cruz’s efforts appeared to violate his own pledge to no longer target sitting Republican senators in favor of tea party-backed candidates in the hard-fought 2014 campaign in which Republicans believe they have a chance to win back control of the Senate.

[...]

“I am stunned that Senator Cruz is involved in this fundraising effort for a group that has targeted his colleagues in the Republican caucus,” Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, told CNN.

Yup, Shutdown Ted is at it again.

Speaking of Senator Collins, let’s look at how the Tea Party could shake up the Susan Collins race.

Currently, the Republican Collins is very popular with most Mainers, especially indies and Democrats; general election polling shows her with a 39-point lead over her Democratic challenger, the pro-weed and anti-NSA Shenna Bellows. However, Collins is not quite so popular among her fellow Republicans; while 48% would vote for her in the 2014 primaries, 44% say they would vote for a more conservative challenger. So far, Collins is lucky in that the one serious challenger she’s faced from the right has managed to rather spectacularly implode prematurely, but other conservative Republicans are mulling primary bids, so she’s not totally out of the woods yet until March 17, which is the deadline for primary challengers to file in the State of Maine.