Tea Party Nation: grassroots candidate shocks establishment GOP candidate in Delaware

Jon Ward Contributor
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It’s official: the Tea Party takeover of the Republican Party is in full effect.

The candidate favored by the conservative grassroots in Delaware shocked a candidate backed by the national party, and in New Hampshire the Tea Party candidate was in a neck and neck race. The results leave no doubt — on the heels of previous Tea Party upsets in Alaska, Nevada and Utah — that anti-establishment, anti-Washington sentiment around the country is boiling over and a threat to Republicans as much as Democrats.

Christine O’Donnell, a conservative talking head, will now be the Republican nominee in Delaware for the U.S. Senate. In New Hampshire, businessman Ovide Lamontagne was a few hundred votes behind attorney general Kelly Ayotte in that state’s primary, in a race that looked likely to go down to the wire.

But it was hard to understate the impact or the shock of O’Donnell’s win.

As recently as two weeks ago, O’Donnell was barely a blip on the radar screen, and Rep. Mike Castle — who has held elected office in Delaware for nearly 30 years — was virtually assured to replace Vice President Joe Biden in the Senate, handing the GOP one of 10 seats they need to take control of the upper chamber.

In one fell swoop, all that has changed, at least according to the conventional wisdom, and a GOP takeover once again looks out of reach after becoming a perceived possibility in the last month or so. Castle led Democratic nominee Chris Coons, a county executive from New Castle County, by a comfortable margin in the polls. O’Donnell has trailed Coons by roughly 10 points in three recent polls.

“There goes the Senate,” said one Republican operative succinctly.

Karl Rove, the former Bush White House political maestro, agreed, saying on Fox News: “This is not a race we’re going to be able to win.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a clipped statement congratulating O’Donnell on her win, but told the Daily Caller that they would not be spending money in Delaware, at least for now.

“Republican candidates currently lead in 7 Democrat-held seats and are tied or within the margin of error in 4 additional states, with West Virginia rapidly coming into that picture,” a NRSC official said. “As of now, Christine O’Donnell trails Chris Coons by double-digits in a deep blue seat.”

“If she can begin to close that gap … then that will warrant a closer look. But right now, there are only a limited number of resources with a large number of states,” the official said.

Some at the O’Donnell rally seemed eager to take on the GOP even more than they did the Democrats. A leader of the Tea Party movement in Delaware, Russ Murphy of the 9/12 Delaware Patriots, made clear how much disregard he had for Washington Republicans in brief remarks from the stage after O’Donnell’s upbeat and cheery victory speech.

Murphy, a Vietnam veteran, told the crowd a story of how Rove came to Delaware a year ago and asked his group to support and work with the national Republican party, and to get behind a candidate that was electable.

“I interrupted Mr. Rove and I said, ‘Sir, with all due respect, we won’t endorse the party,” Murphy said. “No one is going to tell us how to take care of business.”

“If they can’t hear us now they got a big problem,” Murphy said of the national GOP.

But in Washington, Republicans were focusing their discontent on one of their own. A high-ranking GOP aide unleashed a blistering criticism of Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican who on Friday endorsed O’Donnell and Lamontagne, the latest example of his willingness to buck his party.

“I hope Senator DeMint is enjoying his short-lived victory tonight because many Republicans look forward to when he has to look his colleagues in the eye post-November 2nd and explain why he helped cost them a critical Republican vote,” the GOP aide said. “Clearly, he’s doing a great job achieving his arrogant goal of 30 pure Senate seats instead of a Republican majority. I’m sure Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer appreciate his hard work.”

DeMint, however, exuded only confidence and command in the statement issued to the press by his political action committe, Senate Conservatives Fund.

“I want to congratulate Christine on her remarkable victory tonight,” DeMint said. “She came from behind and won this race because of her unwavering support for the principles of freedom. She wasn’t afraid to stand up to the establishment and she overcame some pretty nasty attacks.”

“Now it’s time for all Republicans to unite behind Christine so she can go on to win in November,” he said.

A spokesman for DeMint said that, in fact, the senator’s PAC would try to pick up the fundraising slack left by the NRSC. DeMint spokesman Matt Hoskins said the SCF would aim for $174,000 over the next week as a start, as first reported by The Weekly Standard.

NEXT: The impact of the Delaware election on a lame duck session, and Dems are jubilant

The Delaware Senate race is uniquely important for another reason: the winner will be seated immediately after the Nov. 2 election, meaning a Republican win would give the GOP another vote during a lame duck session, which could be crucial in close votes.

Veteran Democratic strategist Paul Begala, eyeing the tumult among his opponents on the right, captured the moment this way: “For the Republican Party, and the establishment hierarchical corporate party, this is the French Revolution.”

Many Democrats, such as Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, were jubilant at O’Donnell’s victory.

“Tonight Mike Castle became the eighth Republican establishment candidate to be upset by a Party in complete turmoil,” Menendez said. “Instead, Delaware Republicans chose an ultra-right wing extremist who is out of step with Delaware values.”

DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas put it more bluntly.

“Thanks teabaggers! We could certainly use that Senate seat. Very kind of you,” he tweeted.

Others, like Democratic strategist Peter Daou, were more cautious about what the immense showing of anger and dissatisfaction augured for the party in power come November.

“Dems keep cheering for the so-called ‘crazy Republican’ to win. they’re misreading the mood of the nation,” he tweeted.

Begala, though he said Delaware was a clear plus for the Democrats, was also circumspect about the national mood.

“This may redound to Democrats advantage in Delaware, but I’m not one for jumping up and down,” he said. “This is going to be a horrible year for Democrats.”

The win by O’Donnell was another notch on former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s belt. Palin endorsed O’Donnell last week, as the insurgent candidate built momentum. But Palin endorsed New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte as well, which would be a loss for the Mama Grizzy ringleader if Lamontagne’s lead holds.

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