Christine O’Donnell’s stunning upset of a political titan in Delaware’s Republican establishment on Tuesdaywas the final, emphatic message in a primary season that made one thing clear: the G.O.P has largely failed to harness the power of Tea Party voters.
From the summer of 2009, when town hall meetings were filled with people angry about President Obama’s health care overhaul, Tea Party activists signaled that they were not interested in advancing the agenda of a particular party.
But as the 2010 midterm cycle began earlier this year, Republicans predicted that partisan victory would emerge from the energy and enthusiasm generated by the growing number of conservative activists. Party leaders said they would tap into the frustration with the Democratic agenda and the hunger for a change in direction, especially with regard to the economy.
Instead, that energy has turned against establishment Republicans. Tea Party-backed insurgents in the primaries of 2010 have toppled two of the party’s incumbents and six candidates who were supported by insiders in Washington — ending with the surprise defeat of Representative Mike Castle, who had won 12 statewide campaigns in Delaware over four decades in public life and was seeking the party’s nomination for the Senate.
In New Hampshire, where a former state attorney general, Kelly Ayotte, was supposed to cruise to an easy victory in a four-way race, she was still locked in a virtual tie this morning with her Tea Party-backed opponent, Ovide Lamontange.
Together, the victories of the insurgent candidates in Republican primaries have given some hope to a dispirited Democratic party. Though the Democrats still expect losses in November, especially in the House, they are buoyed now by the possibility that the conservatives who will be carrying the Republican banner will be less appealing to the general electorate than they were to primary voters.
“You know, I’ve been barking about these primaries for 18 months and even I can’t believe this one,” a Democratic operative said Tuesday night as the polls closed in Delaware. “I am beside myself.”
For weeks, polls have showed Mr. Obama’s approval ratings sinking and Democratic hopes of retaining control of Congress eroding, while Republicans in Washington have been openly discussing a move into the offices of the House speaker and the Senate majority leader.
Talk shifted in September to the G.O.P. agenda under John Boehner of Ohio, the House minority leader who would be in line to become speaker — a possibility that was given lift in part by a decision by the White House and its Democratic allies to begin personalizing their attacks with commentary and advertising about Mr. Boehner.
And yet the outcome of months of primaries sends an ominous message to those who make their living inside the Beltway. For all the Democrats’ troubles, in some ways the least popular thing to be in America these days is an establishment Republican.
“They don’t have a winning track record this season,” Ms. O’Donnell crowed to Carl Cameron of Fox News on Tuesday night, referring to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the official campaign arm of the Republican leadership in the Senate.
To be sure, the message emerging from Tuesday night’s primaries was sent by a tiny sliver of the population, and even a tiny sliver of the Republican party. In Delaware, just over 55,000 people cast ballots in the party’s primary, and Ms. O’Donnell’s margin of victory over Mr. Castle was just over 3,000 votes. The state has about 621,000 registered voters, and of those, about 182,000 are Republicans.
But with Democrats still a target of voter anger about high unemployment, the slump in housing and a lack of confidence in the country’s economic future, Republicans remain confident that they will make significant gains on Nov. 2, especially in the House.
One G.O.P. strategist in the Senate said on Tuesday night that he still sees his party easily picking up six additional seats in the Senate, an electoral result that would substantially shift the balance of power in Washington and force President Obama to adjust his approach to governing.
“If only 50 percent of the races up for grabs break our way, we pick up a net six,” he said. “And that’s bad?”
Still, by the end of the night, it was clear that the difficulty for Republicans extends beyond the Senate. In the governor’s race in New York, the party leadership’s preferred candidate, Rick Lazio, went down to defeat at the hands of another conservative insurgent supported by the Tea Party.
The next seven weeks will define the uneasy relationship between the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement in America, as Democrats become the common enemy. Success in November may depend on how well the establishment and the insurgency can get along.
A terse statement from the National Republican Senatorial Committee was hardly able to mask the disappointment: “We congratulate Christine O’Donnell for her nomination this evening after a hard-fought primary campaign in Delaware,” said the statement, which was tellingly signed by Rob Jesmer, the committee’s executive director, rather than its leader, Senator John Cornyn of Texas.
Some time later, Ms. O’Donnell was asked whether she thought the “party bosses” would understand the meaning of her victory and provide the kind of support that could help her win.
“I hope they do,” she told Fox News. “If not, that is okay. I’m not counting on them to win this. I’m counting on the folks in this room to take that excitement and sprint towards victory in November.”