09.13.10

The Tea Party's Northern Insurgency

Republicans are on the run in the Northeast, where Tea Party candidates threaten major upsets. John Avlon on the races to watch Tuesday.

Tuesday’s primaries in seven states center on the Northeast coast from Maryland to New Hampshire. But keep an eye on potentially seismic Tea Party-sponsored upsets in Delaware and New York State, which would lead to further regional Republican decline.

In Delaware, Republicans have the opportunity to take Joe Biden’s Senate seat, if their candidate is longtime congressman and former Governor Mike Castle, who’s backed by popular neighboring New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. On the other side is social conservative activist Christine O’Donnell, who has never held elected office but has received the endorsement of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Jim DeMint and the Tea Party Express.

What’s unclear is why she has earned their support. The Tea Party movement says it is focused on fiscal issues, combined with a strong libertarian streak. O’Donnell might be fairly described as the opposite of libertarian and she has no fiscal record to speak of; in fact, her previous campaigns are still in debt, having stiffed former staffers and creditors. Castle, on the other hand, voted against the stimulus bill and Obama’s health care bill, because he felt there were not enough cost-saving provisions like medical malpractice reform. As a two-term governor in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Castle followed his predecessor Pete DuPont’s example, cutting income taxes three times and balancing the budget. But it’s on social issues that Castle departs from dogma: he’s pro-choice, pro-gay rights, defines himself as an environmentalist and earned an “F” rating from the NRA. He’s slightly to the right of Mike Bloomberg and slightly to the left of Scott Brown, and while that’s a good fit for the Northeast, that’s RINO-hunting territory for national activists.

O’Donnell is about as far to the right as you can go and still be on the continental United States.

O’Donnell, on the other hand, is all about social issues and about as far to the right as you can go and still be on the continental United States. As a founder of the evangelical anti-abortion and pro-abstinence group “Saviors Alliance for Lifting the Truth,” advocated the idea that gays and lesbians could be ‘cured’ and converted to heterosexuality. She was a perky conservative fixture on cable TV in the 1990s, opposing abortion even in cases of rape and incest (the new normal on the far-right post-Palin), pornography and extra-marital sex. Needless to say, she was not a fan of Bill Clinton. She even took to the airwaves of MTV to decry masturbation. Beyond some scandals including suing a former employer for $6.9 million on charges of gender discrimination (later dropping the case), accusations of lying to journalists about alleged past campaign successes, and only graduating from college last week, most of the recent low-lights have involved a whisper campaign by her aides that the married and Catholic Mike Castle is gay. Classy. It’s been enough to cause Red State’s Erik Erickson to break with her campaign. The Washington Examiner’s Mark Hemingway sensibly pointed out that O’Donnell wouldn’t pass William F. Buckley’s test of voting for the most conservative candidate that is electable. “If you think O'Donnell…[is] electable,” Hemingway wrote, “you're drinking Kool-Aid, not tea.”

But new polls show that a low-turnout primary on Tuesday could empower her extremism–and doom Republicans’ chances of picking up Joe Biden’s seat in the fall.

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The biggest upsets are (by definition) the ones that no one expects; get ready for a rowdy low-turnout GOP primary in the Empire State. New Yorkers might wake up on Wednesday to find that the Tea Party has knocked off its beleaguered Republican standard-bearer Rick Lazio, in favor of upstate businessman and Tea Party hypocrite Carl Paladino. In the Senate race, former congressman Joe DioGuardi has tried to similarly surf the Tea Party wave against economist David Malpass and businessman Bruce Blakeman.

This would be a devastating turn of events for the once-proud New York Republican Party—which gave us Theodore Roosevelt, Fiorello LaGuardia, Tom Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits—and more recently Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki—has been reduced to minority status and unable to corral its members to support Lazio, its most presentable candidate and once-presumptive nominee.

Paladino is simply a disgrace—a man who began his self-funded campaign with the exposure of a series of emails that manages to include racism (African tribal dances described as Obama inauguration festivities) and bestiality (sex with horses, if you must know) and somehow went down from there. Hypocrisy is the unforgiveable sin in politics and this self-styled scourge of big government is one of its biggest beneficiaries—in fact, he is the state government's largest landlord in Western New York. Paladino is slated to earn $10.1 million from 37 government leases this year, and he holds $85.3 million in state contracts. Buffalo News columnist Rod Watson called Paladino "the biggest proponent of government involvement in the private economy since Karl Marx." But in an election-eve Siena poll, Paladino was neck and neck with the cash-strapped Lazio, a bad sign for the NY GOP.

In a Republican year, the still largely unknown and not broadly popular senate-appointee Kirsten Gillibrand should be an easy pick-up seat. But after potential candidates with statewide reputations declined the opportunity, Republicans are choosing between Forbes columnist and economist David Malpass—a solid fiscal wonk with the endorsements of Rudy Giuliani and the New York Post—Long Island businessman Brad Blakeman and former Westchester congressman Joe DioGuardi, who has somehow attempted to campaign as the outsider and benefits from his daughters’ demi-celebrity as a departing judge on American Idol. But in a relatively unknown and crowded field, DioGuardi’s high name ID upstate could make a difference, especially if Paladino’s voters assume he is an ally. He makes an unexpected outsider conservative populist candidate—a former congressman first elected in the 1980s, who voted against Reagan 40% of the time, lost serial re-election bids into the 1990s and is a registered lobbyist for a foreign government: Albania. Malpass would seem to have a more credible edge with Tea Party voters committed to fiscal conservative economic philosophy (even though he was an economist for Bear Stearns, he opposed the Wall Street bailouts) but when anger is driving conservative populists to the polls, ideas often take a backseat.

Still, it’s hard to overstate what a gut-shot to the NY GOP unexpected victories by Paladino and DeGuardi would be. Already, New York looks like the one state where the conservative tide will not touch statewide offices, as Andrew Cuomo runs a front-running campaign that sounds almost Republican (no new taxes, pension reform, taking on the Democratic establishment in Albany, etc). But in a state whose Republican ranks have been decimated by the increasing polarization of the national party, this would add insult to injury.

Here’s at least one takeaway to consider in advance of Tuesday’s vote: low turnout, closed partisan primaries are proving to be vehicles that can be easily hijacked by ideological activists, giving them disproportionate influence. The conservatism that works in the West and South does not translate to the more socially liberal Northeast. Closed partisan primaries push parties further to the extremes, and they are in danger of compounding the decline of the Republican Party in the Northeast from dominance just a decade ago to near-extinction today.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.