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Christine O'Donnell and 'tea party' victories: What do they mean?

Christine O'Donnell celebrates her win in the Republican primary at her campaign victory event in Dover, Delaware on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Tim Shaffer
Christine O'Donnell celebrates her win in the Republican primary at her campaign victory event in Dover, Delaware on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON — Big victories by Christine O’Donnell and Carl Paladino in Tuesday’s political primaries showed the extent to which “tea party” adherents are revolutionizing the Republican Party.

Both Ms. O’Donnell, the new GOP nominee for the Delaware Senate seat, and Mr. Paladino, now the party’s standard-bearer in the race for governor of New York, were opposed by their state Republican establishments. Both benefited from a wave of insurgent enthusiasm and an apparent feeling among voters that they did not like being told whom to vote for by establishment figures.

O’Donnell defeated Rep. Michael Castle (R), a nine-term incumbent and former governor who earlier in the summer seemed a lock for victory. She benefited from an endorsement by Sarah Palin as well as cash and volunteers provided by an array of tea-party organizations. She thanked them in her victory speech Tuesday night.

 “The America we are fighting for is worth restoring,” O’Donnell said. “I specifically want to thank the 9-12 Patriots for laying the foundation and stirring things up in Delaware, the Founders Values group, and all of the Delaware tea-party groups.”

At one point this year, Paladino was almost 30 percentage points behind his Republican rival, former congressman Rick Lazio, in the polls. The wealthy developer hammered home an antitax message - and spent more than $3 million of his own money - to overcome that gap.

“The [party establishment] did everything they could to build barricades to stop me, and they couldn’t. So I went around them to the people,” Paladino told The Wall Street Journal after his victory.

Tuesday was the last big batch of state primaries before the general election in November. In another closely watched race influenced by tea-party activists, former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte was clinging to a narrow lead over attorney Ovide Lamontagne in the battle for New Hampshire’s GOP Senate nomination.

In New Hampshire, Ms. Ayotte is the establishment figure, recruited by party leaders to run for the Senate. Mr. Lamontagne has the backing of many state tea-party organizations. This situation is complicated, however, by the fact that early on, Ayotte won the endorsement of tea-party icon Sarah Palin.

With primaries now all but over, tea-party groups can claim wins in seven Senate primaries, as well as a few governor’s races and dozens of House races. Their message of fiscal conservatism and a return to smaller government will be a major force in shaping the Republican Party as a whole as it approaches the November elections.

The question now is what tea-party enthusiasm - and candidates - mean for the GOP’s electoral fortunes in November.

Clearly, the establishment has underestimated tea-party power. Any force that can knock off Representative Castle in Delaware, or incumbent GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, is a force to be reckoned with in a general election as well.

But national Republican figures worry that the activist groups are pushing to primary victories candidates who may be too conservative to win in November. On Fox News Tuesday night, GOP strategist Karl Rove spoke for many when he said that he believes O’Donnell is not going to be able to reclaim the Delaware Senate seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden.

“This is not a race we are going to be able to win,” Mr. Rove said.

Pre-primary polls had showed Castle to be a strong favorite in the general-election contest with Democrat Chris Coons. O’Donnell, by contrast, runs much more weakly. And if the GOP can’t win Delaware, its path to retaking control of the Senate becomes much steeper.

Meanwhile, in Nevada, Senate majority leader Harry Reid has long been seen as one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the United States. Yet he’s been able to stay even with, or slightly ahead of, GOP nominee and tea-party favorite Sharron Angle in the polls.

Activists who support tea-party goals are not necessarily impressed by this pragmatic logic. On the RedState blog on Tuesday night, conservative Ben Domenech wrote that he was happy Castle had lost because electing moderates simply to secure a Republican majority would be what he called a “self-defeating proposition.”

“It’s not about being right rather than winning, it’s about the definition of winning in the long term, which cannot be done with elected politicians who don’t believe in conservatism,” Mr. Domenech writes.

Democrats, for their part, on Wednesday were insisting that the tea-party winners were extreme and unelectable.

Former President Clinton said that the GOP increasingly was pushing out pragmatists in favor of candidates who make ex-President George W. Bush “look like a liberal.”

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Henry Clay told a correspondent once that he would rather be right, than be President.