In the 1990’s, Christine O’Donnell dismissed evolution as “just a theory,” and compared masturbation to adultery. More recently, she claimed scientists “are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains,” and said China was plotting to take over the United States. She has lied about her education, misused campaign contributions, and has a history of tax problems. She is an incompetent reprobate with a world view that is as simplistic as it is atavistic. She is the 2010 Republican candidate for Delaware’s open senate seat.
O’Donnell has never been elected to public office, and 2010 will be no exception. Her Democratic opponent has a 15-point lead that shows no signs of flagging. What’s more, she became the Republican candidate by pulling an upset against Mike Castle, a centrist Republican who served for eight years as the governor of Delaware and another eighteen as its sole representative in the U.S. House. Castle, had he won the primary, would have coasted to an easy victory in the general election.
In response to O’Donnell’s primary victory, many pundits have been quick to launch into jeremiads on the state of the Republican party, and some on the left have even begun shedding crocodile tears for their destroyer-turned-fallen-comrade, Mike Castle. They claim the Tea Party (which heavily backed Ms. O’Donnell) is destroying Republican electoral prospects.
In the instance of the Delaware senate race, this assertion is undoubtedly true. But a single datum does not a trend line make.
There are a few other examples to cite: The special election in New York’s 23rd district saw Doug Hoffman scuttle the promising candidacy of Dede Scozzafava, and the gubernatorial elections of New York and Colorado will likely turn out just as self-destructive for Republicans.
But there the pattern ends. Most Tea Party wins have led to competitive or winning races — in the senate contests in Utah, Kentucky, Colorado, and Nevada, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Joe Buck, and Sharron Angle are ahead or polling competitively against their opponents. And in Alaska and Florida, Democrats poll third, trailing by double digits against both moderate and conservative Republican offerings. In dozens of other significant races, Tea Party challengers failed to win their primaries, and now cheer on their fellow Republicans from the sidelines.
Missteps like O’Donnell are an inescapable feature of politics. Primary voters lean more strongly to their respective wings than the general electorate, and so we often see less electable, more ideologically pure candidates scoring own-goals on their party. This is just as true of Democratic primaries in 2006 and 2008 as it has been of Republican ones in 2010 (and has been true of a few 2010 Democratic primaries as well: just ask Alan Mollohan of West Virginia).
Perhaps there is no better example than the woeful tale of Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter. In April of 2009, back when the Tea Party movement was little more than the rhetorical flourish of a CNBC business news editor, Mr. Specter, facing at a losing primary battle against conservative Pat Toomey in 2010, decided to switch parties. He thought he would have an easier time of things campaigning as a Democrat. But no respite came — in the Democratic primaries he was ousted by a liberal, Joe Sestak. Toomey now leads Sestak by a healthy margin.
The take-away summary of 2010 is not that of an imploding Republican party, but of an ascendant conservatism, stumbling in rare instances, but for the most part demanding, and getting, its way.
The Tea Party movement has been massively beneficial to the Republican cause. Not only has it coordinated the GOP message onto a winning platform — fiscal conservatism — but it has also attracted demographics that are normally difficult for Republicans to reach. Women make up a majority of the Tea Party, and one in three African American likely voters supports the movement, according to recent polls.
This is also the first year in which the GOP has paid more than lip service to Karl Rove’s long-begged-for strategy of courting Latino voters. With Marco Rubio, Abel Maldonado, Raul Labrador, Brian Sandoval, Susana Martinez, and John Sanchez, the Republicans have put forward a surprising number of Latino candidates in races that are both winnable and weighty. The Tea Party is not a retrenchment to the GOP’s hardcore wings — it’s an expansion of the party’s base.
Not long ago, the Republicans were leaderless, message-less, powerless, a perfect embodiment of disarray. Today they stand poised to deliver one of the greatest political comebacks in history. It is easy to bemoan how the Tea Party took the GOP from +9 to +8 in its senate races — the real story here is how it first took them from +0 to +9.