The Democrats' Christine O'Donnell Problem

Tea Party wins are more likely to reinforce stalemate on Capitol Hill than bring extremist policies.


Democrats, scrambling to limit the extent of their losses in the midterm elections, are hoping to tie the entire Republican Party to the Tea Party movement, a move they hope will make disaffected voters choose unpopular Democrats over "extremist" Republicans. The primary victory of GOP Delaware Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell, who canceled a series of TV interviews over the weekend after political comedian Bill Maher unearthed her long-ago flirtation with witchcraft, certainly gives the Democrats a boost.

But how realistic is that scary scenario Democrats are painting? Sure, Kentucky Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul, drawing on his libertarian ideology, suggested that private business should not be subject to the Civil Rights Act—an offensive suggestion to people of all races. But would this actually happen? Of course not; even if Paul proposed such an idea, it would go nowhere in Congress.

And for Nevada's Sharron Angle, who wants to phase out Social Security in favor of a privatized system: there's a reason Social Security is called the "third rail of American politics." Never mind that entitlements such as the federal retirement program are a huge chunk of the budget; senior citizens vote, and they don't tend to vote for candidates who talk about cutting their benefits, even if they'll be dead before it happens.

As for O'Donnell: members of Congress have their prayer groups on the Hill, one of the few bipartisan activities still left. But does anyone think she'd be hosting Satanic rituals in some Capitol Hill townhouse?

[See a slide show of bad candidates in the 2010 elections.]

There are legitimate questions of judgment attached to some of these candidates; being a U.S. Senator means weighing questions on whether to go to war, whether to approve trade agreements with foreign nations, and whether to approve Supreme Court nominees—all issues that require thought, reason, and a sophisticated worldview. And the squeamishness about O'Donnell in particular is reflective of a concern about her judgment. But from a practical perspective, wins by these candidates are more likely to reinforce stalemate on Capitol Hill.

Democrats are wise to brand the GOP with its more extremist nominees, especially since Republicans are deftly tapping the enthusiasm of angry voters. And showing clips of O'Donnell talking about how she "dabbled" in witchcraft may light a fire under the collective backsides of disaffected Democratic voters. But Democrats will need to make the argument that it's the judgment and character of the candidates that are suspect, instead of warning of a 2011 without Social Security or the Civil Rights Act.

  • See who is donating to your member of Congress.
  • See a slide show of bad candidates in the 2010 elections.
  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the 2010 campaigns.