O'Donnell's Delaware Primary Win Shows Tea Party a Threat to GOP

Delaware Tea Partyers snatch GOP defeat from the jaws of victory

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The Republican Party has been riding a tiger this election season. It's been a charge for some elements of the party and nerve-wracking for others who worried that perhaps this Tea Party tiger might buck or bite its rider. With fringe GOP-er Christine O'Donnell's victory over Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware's Republican Senate primary tonight, the tiger bit the party.

It's been fascinating watching this movement develop as a political force. Remember when Massachusetts moderate Scott Brown was a Tea Party hero? Or think back to other, early GOP Senate primaries in states like Illinois and Indiana, where more moderate Republicans like Mark Kirk and Dan Coats got nominated as the Tea Party crowd fulminated and groused but were unable to upend the establishment plans.

But the movement started to show signs of effectiveness in early May in Utah when it denied conservative (but not conservative enough!) Sen.  Bob Bennett renomination. Then the movement really started to hit its political stride weeks later in Kentucky when Rand Paul upset establishment favorite Trey Grayson. This sparked a string of insurgent conservative victories--Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado, and most recently Joe Miller in Alaska--that has prompted a new cost-benefit calculus about the Tea Party and the GOP.

Utah is so conservative that even if the GOP nominated someone who opposes direct election of U.S. senators (oh wait, Republican nominee Mike Lee actually does), the seat would stay safely in the red column. Alaska should be in the same category--and is almost certain to stay in GOP hands--but the National Republican Senatorial Committee has had to expend time and resources there that now won't be used in an actual battleground state. Kentucky too should be the kind of seat that party strategists don't have to think about, but when the NRSC ran its first TV ads this campaign cycle it was against Kentucky Democratic candidate Jack Conway. Similarly with his toxic poll numbers, Harry Reid should be dead man walking in Nevada, if not for Angle and her "Second Amendment remedies."

But even in these races, the Tea Party threat to the GOP was theoretical. Yes, they have to pay attention to states they might not have had to but for the Tea Party, but come January Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might be flashing that nervous, tight grin of his as he welcomes Sens. Angle, Paul, Miller, Buck, and the rest to Washington.

With O'Donnell's victory in Delaware, however, the Tea Party threat to the GOP stopped being theoretical. The seat had been widely seen as a ripe GOP pickup with Castle as the nominee. But with O'Donnell? Here's how the Rothenberg Political Report puts it in moving the race from "lean Republican" to "lean Democrat":

Christine O’Donnell’s upset over Cong Mike Castle in the GOP primary dramatically alters Republican prospects for November in Delaware. Castle had broad appeal, including to independents and even Democratic voters, while O’Donnell’s appeal is limited to tea party conservatives. Lacking an impressive resume and unlikely to garner significant national Republican support, O’Donnell clearly looks like an underdog against New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D), who is suddenly transformed to the favorite in the general election. 

While tea party activists are jumping for joy at the primary results, it’s Democrats who will have the last laugh in Delaware.

Say goodbye to GOP Senate majority dreams.

Tea Party allies like South Carolina GOP Sen. Jim DeMint are among those jumping for joy. DeMint likes to say that he would prefer to have 30 pure conservatives in the Senate than 60 moderates like Castle. But this is a straw man argument: You couldn't elect 60 Mike Castles any more than you could 60 Jim DeMints. In order to achieve majority--let alone 60 seat supermajority--status in this country you need a mix from left to center for Democrats and from right to center for the GOP.

But the Tea Party crowd has demonstrated in Delaware that they're more interested in apocalyptic purity rather than the kind of substantive achievement that comes from having a majority. I'm reminded of a successful Republican politician who would complain about some of his conservative supporters' interest in purity over accomplishment. They wanted, Ronald Reagan quipped, to go "off the cliff with all flags flying."

All the Tea Party's flags were on proud display Tuesday night in Delaware as they took the GOP off a cliff.