There’s a natural ebb and flow to American politics, whereby parties thrown out of power find themselves re-energized by opposition and poised for a comeback. Certainly the American right had done a fair amount of energizing itself since the inauguration of Barack Obama. It’s a trend conservatives have spent a fair amount of time celebrating over the past eighteen months, rather implausibly arguing that the rising chorus of Tea Party cranks would suddenly make possible the rollback of the welfare state they’ve spent the past 30 years failing to achieve. Tuesday night’s primary results, especially in Delaware, highlight the fact that this hyper-mobilization of the far right is a double-edged sword that’s at least as likely to hurt the GOP as to help it.
The O’Donnell surge highlights a conflict inside the conservative movement between people looking to win elections and get things done and people who are mostly looking for attention.
To recap, Delaware is a pretty liberal state. Under most circumstances, a race for an open Senate seat there would be easy for Democrats to win. But the party’s strongest candidate, Attorney General Beau Biden, chose not to run. And though New Castle County Executive Chris Coons is a solid contender, the Republicans had a very strong candidate as well in the state’s lone U.S. House member, Mike Castle. Castle is one of the perennially vanishing breed of northeastern moderate Republicans. Only four House Republicans were less conservative in the 111th House, and only about seven members of the larger 110th House Republican caucus had that distinction. Castle was popular, better known, and in a year where Republicans had all the momentum at their back, he looked like a sure thing to win the state.
And to be clear, even though Castle isn’t very conservative for a Republican, he’s still very conservative for Delaware. His record in the current House put him to the right of every single Democrat, including guys like Walt Minnick from Idaho or Dan Boren from Oklahoma. By contrast, if Coons gets into the Senate he’ll likely be a very conventional center-left Democrat.
• Daily Beast contributors on the primary resultsBut instead of Castle, Republicans are going to be running Tea Party favorite, marketing consultant, crank, and frequent office-seeker Christine O’Donnell. O’Donnell ran for Senate in 2006, finishing in third place in the GOP primary. Then she mounted a write-in candidacy and secured four percent of the vote in the general. She got to be the designated sacrificial lamb to run against Joe Biden in 2008, and got 35 percent of the vote. How unelectable is she? So unelectable that even Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, one of the main institutional organizers of Tea Party events, said he wouldn’t intervene in the primary because “It's not wise to elect a philosophically perfect candidate who is not capable of winning the general election.” Randall Chase reported for the Associated Press on September 7 that “State GOP chairman Tom Ross has dismissed O’Donnell as a perennial candidate unworthy of being elected dog catcher.”
But even though the Tea Party had some Astroturf elements to it, the grassroots enthusiasm is real and can be stopped by no Kibbe or state party organization. The Weekly Standard was doing oppo hits on O’Donnell earlier this month--noting, among other things, that she appears to be using campaign funds to subsidize her rent.
More than a clash between conservatives and moderates, the O’Donnell surge and the endorsements from Sarah Palin and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint that powered it highlights a conflict inside the conservative movement between people looking to win elections and get things done and people who are mostly looking for attention. To Charles Krauthammer the O’Donnell endorsements are destructive, capricious, and irresponsible but realistically there’s likely little that’s capricious about it.
After all, who is Sarah Palin? An unpopular former governor. And who’s DeMint? Just some back-bench senator. Without picking these kinds of fights, they’re nobodies. For them, the fact that the pick is strategically daft is a feature, not a bug. If they restricted themselves to rightwing insurgencies that made sense, they might always get bigfooted out by other, more objectively important, conservative figures. By going too far, DeMint got the field to himself and is now the unquestioned king of the Capitol Hill right wing.
What he’s not likely to be, however, is a member of a majority caucus in the United States Senate. The bleak economy and overall political climate are a major wind at the back of conservative candidates across the country, and seems likely to sweep in some wacky candidates like Rand Paul in Kentucky, Joe Miller in Alaska, and perhaps even Sharron Angle in Nevada. Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, however, is almost certainly a bridge too far--but the state is probably one Republicans needed to win to achieve their dream of retaking control of the Senate.
Matthew Yglesias is a Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.