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Electable or Not, Tea Party Candidates Surge in Final Round of Primaries

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The 2010 primary season is ending with a blast of people power that recalls Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign -- except this time the fired-up grassroots are conservatives instead of liberals. Candidates blessed by the Republican establishment are under threat this week from upstart "outsiders" and primary voters who care more about ideology than electability.

The latest establishment Republicans on the line include moderate nine-term Rep. Michael Castle of Delaware and a former New Hampshire attorney general, Kelly Ayotte, in Senate primaries, and former Rep. Rick Lazio in New York's gubernatorial primary.

Already this season, Sens. Bob Bennett of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have lost out to Tea Party favorites Mike Lee and Joe Miller, respectively. Another Tea Party pick, Ron Johnson, is expected to win the Senate nomination this week in Wisconsin. Earlier Tea Party winners include Senate nominees Ken Buck of Colorado, Marco Rubio of Florida, Sharron Angle of Nevada and Rand Paul of Kentucky, and gubernatorial nominees Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Rick Perry of Texas and Dan Maes of Colorado.

Though there are primaries Tuesday in the District of Columbia and seven states -- Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin -- the marquee race is in Delaware. Supporters of both Castle and Christine O'Donnell, his Tea Party-backed rival, are trying to gin up their voters by calling the outcome critical to which party controls the Senate. "This one vote could decide the direction of the nation," blogger Frank Knotts wrote at the O'Donnell-friendly Web site DelawarePolitics.net.

Read Poll Watch's round-up of the latest surveys of races in Delaware, New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin

Castle is the type of Republican who drives conservatives around the bend. He had a 56 percent rating from the American Conservative Union last year -- almost identical to his 55 percent rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. He supported the 2009 climate bill that limited pollution by capping carbon emissions, and this year he voted for the new law reforming financial regulations. The Delaware GOP and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey are among his backers.

O'Donnell's team calls Castle "King RINO" -- that is, Republican In Name Only. She has received endorsements from major interest groups and leading conservatives, including the Tea Party Express, Sarah Palin, the National Rifle Association and Sen. Jim DeMint. Yet she and her camp have been associated with so many controversies that many Republicans consider her unelectable. Her chief detractors are the state GOP and other conservatives. Republican State Party Chairman Tom Ross referred Monday, for example, to her "long series of dishonest and ethically questionable actions."

Among other things, O'Donnell claimed falsely to have won two of the state's three counties against Joe Biden in the 2008 Senate race; she also claimed falsely to have a 1993 degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University (she received the degree earlier this month after paying tuition bills from the 1990s and finishing an additional class).

O'Donnell's finances are irregular, especially for a political candidate. As The News Journal of Wilmington summarized, "Public records show O'Donnell has no steady income, no savings, no investments and owns no property." She reported income of only $5,800 last year. Her mortgage was almost foreclosed in 2008 and this year the IRS filed a lien against her for unpaid income taxes. Also noteworthy: She said her political enemies lurk outside her house, she is against masturbation, and in 2005, claiming mental anguish, she filed a $6.95 million lawsuit accusing a conservative group of demoting her because she is a woman.

"She is certainly far from perfect (who is?). But I think nine terms are enough for duck-and-hide, cap-and-tax liberal Republican Mike Castle," conservative columnist Michelle Malkin wrote Monday. She said Castle's voting record makes him the untrustworthy candidate.

As Delaware Republicans slug it out, Democrats are trying to contain their ebullience about O'Donnell's rise. Polls show their Senate pick, New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, would trail Castle in a general election but win handily against O'Donnell.

In New Hampshire, Ayotte is backed by Palin and Republicans in Washington, including retiring Sen. Judd Gregg. An early frontrunner, she went into the primary only slightly ahead of Tea Party favorite Ovide Lamontagne, a lawyer, former state board of education chairman and 1996 GOP gubernatorial nominee.

Who is the "true conservative" in the race? Palin recorded a robocall saying it's Ayotte, but radio host Laura Ingraham says it's Lamontagne, who wants to eliminate parts of the federal government. His other backers include DeMint, Steve Forbes, the conservative and influential New Hampshire Union Leader, and Liberty Central, a Tea Party group founded by Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Ayotte served as attorney general, an appointive post, for both a Republican governor and a Democratic governor. Add to that her lack of campaign experience and voting record, and some conservatives are wary. "She's adopted every appropriate conservative position," said Dean Spiliotes, a blogger and political science professor based in Manchester. "The question all along has been is she authentic. Nobody really knows."

The splintered New Hampshire field also includes wealthy businessman Bill Binnie, a race car driver who owns a country club and a race-car team, supports abortion rights and has sunk several million dollars into the campaign; and businessman Jim Bender. Binnie used much of his money to attack Ayotte, leaving an opening for Lamontagne "to pick up the pieces," as University of New Hampshire politics analyst Dante Scala put it. The expected Democratic nominee is Rep. Paul Hodes.

There is even a Tea Party dynamic in New York. A weekend poll of the GOP gubernatorial primary showed former Rep. Rick Lazio, the onetime front-runner, even with Buffalo real estate developer Carl Paladino, who has backing from a number of Tea Party groups in the state. The winner faces Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who has a commanding lead in polling for the general election.

The Tea Party is not surging everywhere. The movement -- and Palin -- tapped investor Brian Murphy in the Maryland governor's race, for instance, but moderate former governor Bob Ehrlich is expected to prevail. Still, there's no question that the Tea Party has made its presence felt in Tuesday's final round of primaries, and has an even shot at adding more nominees to its already impressive season tally.

(This story has been updated since initial publication to correct the number of states holding Sept. 14 primaries)

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