Tea Party conservatives emerged from the final big night of the 2010 primary season with at least two shocking upsets: Their pick in Delaware's Republican Senate primary, Christine O'Donnell,
toppled veteran Rep. Michael Castle. And Buffalo developer Carl Paladino, a political newcomer allied with the Tea Party
, defeated former congressman Rick Lazio in New York's Republican gubernatorial primary.
The Delaware primary was a fitting climax to a season of noisy contests between candidates anointed by the Republican establishment because they seemed more electable, and those favored by Tea Party activists because they seemed more conservative.
Castle, a nine-term congressman and former Delaware governor, had called his race against O'Donnell a test of whether a moderate could survive in today's rebellious, increasingly conservative GOP. For him and for Lazio, also a moderate, the answer was no. Paladino now faces Democrat Andrew Cuomo, the New York attorney general and son of former governor Mario Cuomo, who has a commanding lead in polls of the race.
More Primary Elections Coverage:
- O'Donnell, Paul and the Primaries
- Ayotte Beats Lamontagne in NH Primary
- NY: Charlie Rangel Wins, Rick Lazio Loses
- Wisconsin: Johnson to Face Feingold
- Rep. Stephen Lynch Survives in Mass.
- O'Donnell Stuns Castle in Delaware
- Robitaille, Caprio, Chafee in RI Gov. Race
- O'Malley to Face Ehrlich in Maryland
- Politics Daily: Full 2010 Elections Coverage
Tea Party gains were not limited to Delaware and New York. The movement picked up a favored Senate nominee in Wisconsin, Oshkosh businessman Ron Johnson. His victory formalized his ongoing stiff challenge to Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
Former New Hampshire attorney general Kelly Ayotte managed to fend off a late surge
by lawyer and 1996 gubernatorial nominee Ovide Lamontagne. The final results Wednesday gave her a victory margin of 1,667 votes.
Lamontagne had momentum from endorsements by Sen. Jim DeMint, a Tea Party ally, as well as the Tea Party group Liberty Central and the influential Union Leader newspaper. Ayotte was backed by the party establishment in Washington, including retiring Sen. Judd Gregg. She also was endorsed by Sarah Palin -- which helped her counter conservative wariness over her service as an appointee of governors from both parties and her statement that she would have voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Ayotte now faces Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes in the general election.
In other key races, Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York easily won renomination in his Harlem district despite a looming House trial on ethics violations
. And in Washington, D.C., city council Chairman Vincent Gray defeated Mayor Adrian Fenty in a Democratic primary that was seen as a referendum on the abrasive styles of both Fenty and his hand-picked schools chief, Michelle Rhee
. The results in both Democratic cities were tantamount to general election victories for Rangel and Gray.
Delaware's O'Donnell, a conservative activist nearly three decades younger than Castle, spent much of the campaign defending herself from criticism of her character and personal finances. The Delaware GOP and party leaders such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie mobilized to help Castle, calling O'Donnell unelectable and worse. But she prevailed with backing from Tea Party groups and prominent figures such as Palin, Michelle Malkin and DeMint.
The O'Donnell victory immediately shifted the seat, once held by Vice President Joe Biden, from likely GOP to likely Democratic and reduced the odds of Republicans winning a majority in the Senate. The shell-shocked National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a one-line statement congratulating O'Donnell. Democrats lauded their nominee, New Castle County executive Chris Coons, as an energetic reformer focused on jobs. On Twitter, pundits all but declared Coons the blue-leaning state's next senator.
"A lot of people have already said that we can't win the general election," O'Donnell said in a victory speech. "Yes, we can. Yes, we will." On Wednesday, NRSC chairman John Cornyn of Texas announced he was giving O'Donnell $42,000. He said he and the committee "strongly stand by all of our nominees," including O'Donnell.
O'Donnell and Johnson brought to eight the number of Tea Party allies who have won Senate nominations. The others are Mike Lee of Utah, Joe Miller of Alaska, Ken Buck of Colorado, Marco Rubio of Florida, Sharron Angle of Nevada and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Castle, first elected statewide in Delaware 30 years ago, had broken from his party to support Obama administration priorities such as a climate-change bill and the new financial reform law, and has been working with Democrats on revisions to the No Child Left Behind education law. Many Republicans looked at the bottom line -- polls suggesting O'Donnell is unelectable
-- and stood by Castle.
But his moderate record was enough to send more voters into O'Donnell's camp, despite warnings from Charles Krauthammer and other conservatives that she is a fatally flawed candidate. Issues that arose during the primary campaign included her false claims (that she had a college degree, that she defeated Biden in two of the state's three counties in 2008); irregular finances (including a near-foreclosure, an IRS tax lien and a total reported 2009 income of $5,800); unusual public statements (she's against masturbation and she believes political rivals are stalking her); and a multimillion-dollar sex discrimination lawsuit against a former employer.
"I'm an average hard-working American. I'm not a multimillionaire like my opponent. Of course in this economy I've fallen on hard times," O'Donnell said Tuesday morning on CBS' "The Early Show." She said she had straightened out her finances and "I came through to the other side in a very strong position."
Follow Jill Lawrence on Facebook and Twitter