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Christine O'Donnell, Rand Paul and the Primaries: Are They the Right Stuff?

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NEW YORK -- Christine O'Donnell's dramatic come-from-nowhere victory in the Delaware Senate Republican primary could easily be interpreted as proof of the potency of a Sarah Palin endorsement and a Tea Party imprimatur. But it also can be viewed as a repudiation of her establishment opponent, 71-year-old nine-term Congressman Michael Castle, perhaps the last old-fashioned GOP moderate in the House. But how large a national trend can be drawn from a primary in which fewer than 60,000 Republicans voted?

Or take the way that the pontificating pundits on cable TV over-hyped the cosmic meaning of maverick real-estate magnate Carl Paladino's lopsided victory over shopworn former Congressman Rick Lazio in a low-turnout primary for the worthless New York GOP gubernatorial nomination. Sure, Paladino is a (how shall we put this politely?) different-drummer candidate with his seeming love for pornographic e-mails and his propensity for odd statements like denouncing a Jewish state legislative leader as the "anti-Christ." But everyone knows that Paladino has about as much chance as the disgraced Eliot Spitzer of being elected governor in November – Andrew Cuomo, the state attorney general, is virtually certain to win in a landslide in this Democratic state.
Ever since 1842 when the first direct primary was conducted in Crawford County, Pa., these intra-party battles have launched countless glib theories about the mood of the electorate. This year's cliché is, of course, the anti-incumbent uprising (the most recent casualty was Sen. Lisa Murkowski in last month's Alaska GOP primary) and the ideological fervor of Tea Party activists. While there have been internecine Democratic battles (mostly notably Joe Sestak's upending of 80-year-old, party-switching, five-term Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania), most incumbents in Barack Obama's party have been obsessed with unemployment after the November elections rather than embarrassment in a primary. (Speaking of politicians beyond embarrassment, the scandal-scarred Charlie Rangel romped home Tuesday night, proving that not all troubled congressional incumbents are automatically doomed).

Tuesday marked the dramatic end of the primary season -- except for (warning: pedantic detail ahead) Saturday's balloting in Hawaii. For those determined to impose a one-size-fits-all narrative on the 2010 primaries, it is worth recalling that when Illinois voters went to the polls on Groundhog Day, Scott Brown had not been yet been seated in the Senate and health care reform was stalled in Congress. Back on June 8, the biggest day on the primary calendar, when 12 states nominated candidates, Democrats still nurtured the hope that the economy would begin to rebound before Election Day.

That is the problem with cosmic generalizations based on primary results -- the evidence is spread over seven months in an era when tweets-get-moving political junkies grow impatient if there is not a new paradigm every three hours. Republicans have been buoyed by calculations showing that 4 million more GOP voters had voted in party primaries (through the end of August) than Democrats. If the Republicans win control of Congress, this figure will be seen as a leading indicator of Democratic disinterest and despair. But if the Democrats manage to beat the expectations game in November, this primary turnout number will be quickly forgotten or filed away as a meaningless blip.


Many panicked Democratic incumbents have been playing the rush-to-the-center game for months -- they all but pretend that they were in an undisclosed secure location when dastardly imposters cast unpopular congressional votes for the economic stimulus, health care reform and cap-and-trade energy legislation. But if Democrats cannot, in reality, hide from their records, then Republicans cannot ignore the potential wrath of the Tea Party movement and other conservative activists who consider compromise to be an anathema.

Primaries have given the Republicans many Senate nominees who are so unyieldingly conservative that they probably worry that making left turns at intersections might betray their principles. It is telling (and gleefully highlighted by Democrats) that the first TV ad sponsored by the independent expenditures arm of the National Republican Senatorial Committee was on behalf of Rand Paul in Kentucky. This is a state where Obama won only 41 percent of the vote in 2008 – and had establishment candidate Trey Grayson corralled the GOP primary back in May, Kentucky would not be in play.

Mid-September primaries -- God's gift to incumbents -- make it hard for challengers to pivot for the November campaign. With just seven weeks until the midterm election, it is nearly impossible for O'Donnell to air brush away the scars from the scorched-earth primary campaign -- especially the charges that she has been living off campaign donations and her inaccurate claims about her college graduation (she finally received her degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University just two weeks ago). The Delaware contest for the seat held for more than three decades by Joe Biden may prompt more discussion of the fervor of O'Donnell's opposition to all forms of teenage sexuality than, say, her critique of Obama's health care legislation.

Party leaders -- who have a traditional interpretation of electability based on fundraising prowess, poll numbers and insider pedigree -- are not always omniscient. New Hampshire voters Tuesday chose a Republican (the slow count was still unfinished as of Wednesday morning) to take on vulnerable two-term liberal Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. In 2006 Rahm Emanuel, then at the helm of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, publicly rebuffed Shea-Porter's candidacy and put the muscle of the national party behind one of her primary opponents. Not only did Shea-Porter defeat her DCCC-anointed opponent in the primary, but she also confounded the experts by knocking off a GOP incumbent in November.

Most political theories (and I am borrowing an early 1990s insight from journalist and friend Alan Ehrenhalt) focus on the attitudes and the demands of voters. But the supply side of the equation -- the characteristics and beliefs of the candidates themselves -- often get lost in these abstract models.

For all the fire and fury directed at the Obama White House and the Democratic congressional majorities, Republican primary voters have made their path to victory in November that much more difficult by nominating idiosyncratic Senate candidates like Christine O'Donnell, Rand Paul and, yes, Sharron Angle in Nevada. Such ideologically intense GOP nominees promise to fiercely challenge the mores of Washington -- but first they have to get past the voters in the muddled middle in November.
Filed Under: 2010 Elections

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churchstreet3

every politician has to start somewhere. you aren't born with a political voting record. give the girl a chance. Castle voted FOR cap & tax. Voters did check his voting record and now he is in the unemployment line. they say it took her 20 yrs to pay off her student debt- WHO THE HELL DOESN'T??? Karl Rove royally pisssed me off last night. Saying that she now has to answer questions about her past? Did he ask this of Wrangel? Kerry? Clinton? She IS electable and the DE voters who came out in droves yesterday and voted her in sure as hell aren't gonna now vote Democrat. let's face it folks!

September 15 2010 at 2:17 PM
ha6ai

Dems and Obama falsely claim the electorate's motivation is "anti-incumbent". It is actually anti-Obama/Democrat policies. After Obamacare, "Stimulus" 1, 2, etc., Tripling the Deficit in less than two years, broken promises with Tax Hikes on the middle class, "Cap and Tax", "Cash for Clunkers", Union Bailouts, attacks on Medicare, attacks on Arizona and pushing Amnesty, the refusal to shrink government, Town Hall meetings met with threats and vile accusations from Pelosi and crew (and Obama weighing in on the wrong side of every hot-button racial issue and botching the Gulf Oil spill and threatening thousands of jobs) ... and repeated assaults on voters' freedoms and financial security, ... UNEMPLOYMENT under Obama/Dem policies has increased horribly. .... The electorate is repudiating a radical left wing "change" - POLICIES which are damaging America. .... (despite the lefist propaganda-talking-points from AOL/TimeWarner).

September 15 2010 at 2:16 PM
patr728

Am I the only person who was concerned when reading that Ms. O'Donnell has a bad history with loans and taxes? I also read in one of the media stories that her house is in foreclosure! Is this really the kind of person that should be a Congressperson? I don't think so. With all the negativity that has been going on since Obama took office, all I can say is,"Hang on to your hats ladies & gentlemen 'cause you ain't seen nothing yet!" Too many people are pinning all their hopes on this Tea Party group, which strongly appears to me to be in large part a bunch of bigoted racists. I've lived a long time (71 years) and this group scares me to death.......so full of promises just like every politician who has ever run for office! And we all know that try as they may (or may not) they never achieve those promises to their full extent. I am confident that the Tea Party will fail in their efforts just like all those before them. So sad to see the state that this glorious country that I love has fallen to.

September 15 2010 at 2:16 PM
James P Sanders

injoy your opion on the candiates but changes is comeing like it or not not everyone who votes in this democract sociaty doensnt always agrees with you but you have a right to your ovious bais opion

September 15 2010 at 2:14 PM
4EVAMORE

Lillie you hit the nail on the head. Unfortunately it is still being played as 8th grade, that is actually where it all starts. Continue to raise your children that way and that is what you get. Think about it.

September 15 2010 at 2:12 PM
Diane

I know that people like to label all tea party members as being of one mind on everything. It is just not true. I am sitting here wearing a tea party t-shirt and I have to admit, I don't care for Christine O'Donnell and all her baggage. I am going to read more about her situation but from first appearances, she does not sound like anyone I would want to vote for. Fortunately, I won't be in that position since I don't live there. I would, however, vote for Sharron Angle just to get rid of Reid. I think he is further sinking himself by adding the Dream Act and the Don't ASK, Don't Tell repeal to the defense bill. BTW, this Tea Partier does believe in gays serving openly in the military. I have gay friends and they don't hit on me. The gays I know back off if they know you are straight. Just the humble INDIVIDUAL opinion of a tea party member from closer to center.

September 15 2010 at 2:11 PM
churchstreet3

they say Cuomo is a shoe-in? Didn'tt ehy say that in mass? in DE?? Get real- itis a primary. if they can win that they can definitely win against the dems. Remember, 60+% of Americans say they are more likely to vote rep than dem. these Dems still ahve much to be scared of!

September 15 2010 at 2:10 PM
4EVAMORE

Bravo, bravo. A standing ovation for rjrizzi1, this is absolutely right. The only problem is, unfortunately there are not enough bright people like rjrizzi1 and myself to make a difference. That is why the general public is being pacified with material things which keeps them busy and happy. And away from politics. What a shame and waste.

September 15 2010 at 2:10 PM
manitouharbor

I don't think that the media on the Right and the Left or the politicians they represent have any idea how much contempt the American people have for each of them. Though the media doesn't talk about it we know all about Gramm Leach and the impact it had on our financial system and the pressure both sides put on banks to lend money where it should not have gone. The founding fathers never intended the government be run by career politicians and they understood the corruption that would bring. May we can take it back and do it again and again until we see change.

September 15 2010 at 2:09 PM
Nikki

I agree a lot with Tenderlies1 had to say. I wish that President Obama would highlight how many things he has tried to do for the American people, but the Republicans are blocking. So the help doesn't get to the people to try to make him look bad. The Republicans think that's the only way they can gain power back. They don't care about what the American public is going through and have never had a cooperative spirit to address the countries' needs. President Obama really needs to bring the American's public attention to that, even more. It was ridiculous when that Republican was voting not to extend unemployment benefits when many families and individuals are hurting right now. How dare the Republicans try to attack President Obama on the economy. Bush and a lot of Republicans, over the years, wanting to deregulate business is the reason for the bad economy right now. When things were worse under George Bush. We're not losing jobs, like when Bush was president. Even though the pace has been slower than expected, we're gaining jobs under President Obama. I think with the health care reform. He needs to go into even more detail about how much better coverage this has provided for the American public. It's similar to the health care systems that they've in industrialized European nations and Canada. People need to realize how good it'll be to not be denied for a pre-existing limitation or because they've exceeded their lifetime dollar maxiumum to be denied. The Democrats must be really vocal about the positive changes, stop letting the Tea Partyers hog the conversation. I blame the media partially for this as well. They gave the Tea Party too much attention and didn't focus on the real issues at hand, in a thoughtful,comprehensive manner. That's why I laugh at the suggestion that the media is "liberal." The media is corporate and tends to lean more conservative politically.

September 15 2010 at 2:08 PM

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