The Tea Party is an awesome force that could yield a Republican majority in the House and major gains in the Senate, but on Tuesday it may have shown its destructive side, possibly killing the GOP's chances in Delaware.
Democrats are now likely to hold onto Joe Biden's old Senate seat because Republican voters nominated insurgent candidate Christine O'Donnell over Rep. Mike Castle, the pro-choice, pro-bailout liberal Republican who was the pick of the GOP establishment.
The emotion generated by O'Donnell's upset win has brought out the worst in many politicos and pundits — from the Left, the Right, and the GOP establishment.
O'Donnell's primary win has rekindled the immaturity that plagues the Left these days. Mocking O'Donnell's past television appearances discussing masturbation and odd notions of God's Providence is more pleasing to liberal Web sites and television shows than, say, discussing President Obama's betrayal of his base on torture, or seriously asking why the Democratic Party is so unpopular.
For GOP establishment figures, like pro-choice, pro-bailout neoconservative Bush administration alumnus David Frum, O'Donnell's poor general election poll numbers prove that the Tea Party is a purely destructive force, hurting the GOP by driving out moderates. Frum's disdain toward the Tea Party embodies the very “shut-up-and-vote-Republican” elitism that made possible the fiscal and military failures of George W. Bush, and subsequently provoked the Tea Parties.
And many conservative pundits, such as the vitriolic radio host Mark Levin, proved during the O'Donnell-Castle race that they are Tea Party absolutists who not only are undeterred by O'Donnell's glaring personal flaws, but who see any conservative criticism of her as beyond the bounds of permissible dissent. Counter-revolutionaries cannot be tolerated.
So, as a rowdy primary season comes to an end in a midterm election year that promises to be historic, we are left looking at the greatest political force this year, and asking, “What the heck are these Tea Parties, and what effect will they have?”
Frum wrote on Wednesday morning that Barack Obama was the big winner — not just of the Delaware primary, but of the Tea Party phenomenon in general. Karl Rove and other stalwarts of the GOP establishment argued that weak Tea Party nominees, such as O'Donnell and Sharron Angle in Nevada, could cost the GOP a chance at a Senate majority.
This misinterprets the impact of the Tea Party movement in a way that reflects the establishment's arrogance.
If the GOP picks up eight Senate seats and loses Delaware and Nevada, the establishment will blame the Tea Party for losing the majority. But that ignores the fact that the Tea Party — and not John Boehner or Mitch McConnell — has provided nearly all the energy for the GOP takeover.
Were Republican voters as well behaved as Frum would like, Senate seats in Washington, Wisconsin, California, and West Virginia would not be within reach. Without the enthusiasm ginned up by the rowdy conservative populists, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Ohio, and North Carolina would not look as good for Republicans as they do now.
Had conservative leaders somehow tamped down — rather than stoking — the Tea Party flames, the GOP would be looking at a three- to five-seat gain including Delaware and probably Nevada. Instead, Republicans will gain six to 10 seats this fall — with a much more conservative caucus.
In other words, the Tea Party may mean we get Sen. Coons instead of Castle, but it also probably means Marco Rubio instead of Charlie Crist, Joe Miller instead of Lisa Murkowski, Mike Lee instead of Bob Bennett, Rand Paul instead of Trey Grayson, Ken Buck instead of Jane Norton, and maybe even Ron Johnson instead of Russ Feingold — just to name a few.
Rove and Frum would somehow like the energy of the Tea Party without the willfulness. They want the force of the flood, but they want it to go in a direction of their choosing.
On the other side, some elements of the Right showed an absolutism and intolerance that could reap serious harm. My colleague Mark Hemingway was whacked in the blogosphere as a “Republican in Name Only” for critiquing O'Donnell's record of sketchy finances and credibility issues. Radio host Levin personally attacked conservative journalists who argued that Castle would be a better nominee, either because of O'Donnell's character or Delaware's liberal tendencies.
The unhealthy premise is this: If a candidate rails against the establishment and can articulate conservative notions, her past, her character, and her electability shouldn't matter.
The open warfare O'Donnell's victory has sparked in the GOP makes one thing clear: By crossing the Delaware, the Tea Party has crossed the Rubicon.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.