Tonight, political eyes will shift to Delaware where Senate candidates Christine O'Donnell and Chris Coons are meeting for their first debate. With control of the senate lagging by one or two seats according to the Election Oracle, and polls showing the non-witch 18 points down, Republicans should be cursing the purge of centrist Congressman Mike Castle, who was expected to win the race easily.
But the lesson seems to have been lost on some conservatives who point instead to the competitiveness of far-right candidates like Sharron Angle as proof of the success of their burning-down-the-big-tent, RINO-hunting strategy. The reality, however, is that centrist Republican candidates are winning races in states where far-right conservatives are otherwise struggling. And it's happening despite the fact that these centrist GOP candidates are largely ignored by the media and conservative activists alike because they don't conform to the national narrative.
For example, while Sharron Angle remains neck and neck with Harry Reid, the other statewide GOP candidate in Nevada, Brian Sandoval is cruising to an easy double-digit win, according to the Election Oracle. The pro-choice Hispanic candidate for Governor is a former judge who is running against Harry Reid's son Rory. Sandoval's striking success in the polls illustrates the costs that come with nominating extreme candidates. The double-digit gap of support between the two Nevada Republicans shows that Angle's extreme positions are a drag on her candidacy - the only thing keeping her campaign alive is dislike for Harry Reid and a boatload of national activist cash. Her campaign will come down to whether she can stop enough Sandoval voters from splitting their ticket—and that's a sign of weakness, not strength.
Likewise, let's look to New York, where Carl Paladino continues to be an epic embarrassment for the once proud New York State Republican Party. But don't buy the line that Andrew Cuomo's ascendancy was so inevitable that no candidate could have beaten him—more centrist Republicans are proving competitive in the Empire State. Down-ticket, Comptroller Candidate Harry Wilson and Attorney General nominee Dan Dovovan are running competitive campaigns, polling well ahead of Paladino (who they refuse to endorse for the top post). And while the ranks of New York's GOP congressional delegation have been decimated over the past decade, this year they look to make gains despite the Paladino's drag, with pro-choice candidates like Nan Hayworth and Richard Hanna.
Centrist Republicans should be honored by their party, not purged out of existence.
Likewise, let's take a look at Republicans running in two Democratic-dominated states: Illinois and Oregon. Mark Kirk should be a GOP hero this election cycle—a Republican with more than fighting chance to take President Obama's senate seat. He's got the fiscal conservative and national security chops: as a congressman, he was the first member of the House Appropriations Committee to swear off earmarks and he did two stints in Afghanistan as a member of the Naval Intelligence Reserves—a distinction that is not considerably diminished by allegations that he claimed individual credit for an award given to a unit he commanded. But despite polls showing Kirk best positioned to win the seat of all Republican candidates, he was opposed by Rush Limbaugh and other conservative opinion makers in GOP primary largely because he is pro-choice the co-chairman of the centrist Tuesday Group in the House. This race is still rated a toss-up by the Election Oracle, which merges traditional polling and Internet sentiment—but with Republican control of the Senate within reach, more support for this centrist candidate could make all the difference, with bragging rights attached.
Over in Oregon, Republicans have had a rough time since the retirement of the legendary Senator Mark Hatfield. But former NBA star Chris Dudley is giving former Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber a run for his money, with the Election Oracle showing a 60% chance that this crunchy state will have a Republican governor. Dudley's strength in the polls comes from the fact that he can't convincingly be painted as a far-right zealot—he's pro-choice, pro-environment and pro-business. Likewise, its takes a centrist CEO like Meg Whitman to be competitive in a dysfunctional Democratic state like California—a strident social conservative would be a non-starter in the race for Governor.
Whether its former Governor Terry Branstad's cruise to victory in Iowa over incumbent Chet Culver or the recently elected Republican Congressman from Honolulu (!) Charles Dijou's unexpected strength, it stands to reason that centrist Republicans should be honored by their party, not purged out of existence. After all, it was pro-choice Senator Scott Brown who started this Republican shift with his seismic victory to succeed Ted Kennedy, and now he's rated the most popular political figure in Massachusetts.
• The GOP’s Undercover Bankrollers All of which brings us back to Delaware. The same CNN polls that show O'Donnell losing 55 to 39 to Chris Coons, show Mike Castle beating Coons by that same margin were he the nominee. That swing vote—and quite possibly control of the senate—is the cost of nominating an extreme, unqualified candidate in closed partisan primary.
RINO hunting the centrist Republican tradition out of existence is not only unwise in the long run—it would cripple the GOP from gaining key seats in this election cycle.
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.