The shocking victory of Tea Party-backed Christine O’Donnell in Delaware is fracturing the Republican Party establishment in Washington.
Many Party officials are livid because, as they see it, Republicans have likely lost what was an easy pickup of Joe Biden’s old Senate seat.
But the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s vow last night not to spend money to back O’Donnell is engendering its own backlash, as conservative activists slam the committee for its “petty” stand on the issue, as one source put it. (Under pressure, the NRSC just reversed course and promised to support O’Donnell).
Meanwhile, one man in Washington stands to benefit – or suffer – from O’Donnell’s victory perhaps more than any other: South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint.
To some, including many conservatives, DeMint is a hero for bucking the Party establishment to help kill off liberal Republican Rep. Mike Castle. They see DeMint as a principled conservative who acts with the courage of his convictions.
To others, including many longtime political operatives, DeMint is an arrogant self-promoter whose out-of-control antics are hurting Republicans more than they help.
But even if he is polarizing the Republican establishment, DeMint’s power is undoubtedly waxing. As many as ten Tea Party-affiliated or sympathetic candidates are poised to win in November, potentially tripling the ranks of conservatives in the Senate.
The dynamic has already created an awkward dynamic between DeMint and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who recently preemptively claimed he had the votes to keep his spot as leader. “If I were Mitch McConnell, I’d be looking over my shoulder at Jim DeMint,” said Democratic strategist Paul Begala.
If O’Donnell loses, as polls indicate is likely, DeMint’s antagonists can claim vindication for their disgusted reactions today. As one GOP aide put it, “Jim DeMint fancies himself a king maker, so good for him, you just crowned a loser.”
But in the much less likely event O’Donnell wins, DeMint can claim victory not only over the NRSC, whose candidates he has opposed in repeated primaries, but O’Donell’s victory will justify his judgment in picking her in the first place.
And there will be one more strongly conservative member of the Senate, one who owes DeMint at least partial credit for her victory.
One caveat: DeMint’s endorsement, like others he has given to Tea Party candidates, came late in the game – limiting its effect on the race. Further, he is not particularly well known in Delaware. Those two factors limit the extent to which he is responsible for O’Donnell’s win.
NRSC vs. RNC
Meanwhile, two of the Republican Party committees appear to be divided on the issue.
Last night, minutes after O’Donnell’s victory became apparent, the NRSC said it would not be sending financial help to O’Donnell, whose campaign war chest stands at a paltry $20,000.
In stark contrast, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is embracing O’Donnell, a potentially savvy move that could garner him support on the right.
“After a spirited primary, I want to congratulate Christine O’Donnell on winning the nomination,” said Steele in a statement. Steele has reached out to O’Donnell, an RNC spokesman said, but the two have not spoken. The RNC already has two “victory centers” in Delaware.
NEXT: House vs. Senate race implications
Even though they’ve now reversed course, the NRSC’s stand last night is provoking anger from even Republicans who lament O’Donnell’s victory.
“It was not prudent for the NRSC to come out so harshly against O’Donnell. It just doesn’t make any sense to publicly announce that they weren’t going to give her any help, even if she probably isn’t going to win the seat,” said one GOP operative – one well outside of DeMint’s circle.
DeMint’s camp is livid with the NRSC – they think blame for a possible O’Donnell defeat lies with them, a source said.
House vs. Senate
Another angle to watch is how O’Donnell’s victory will effect how Republicans focus their campaign spending.
One GOP operative speculated that O’Donnell’s victory could provoke outside groups, like Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads, to focus resources on House races since if O’Donnell loses, it would be nearly impossible for Republicans to win a majority vote in the Senate.
“You also have to wonder if donors and other groups will steer their money to House races now since it’s unlikely that the GOP will take back the Senate,” the source said.
Already American Crossroads has downplayed the likelihood it will send money to help O’Donnell. But will the race have broader implications as well?