Republican Party in Open Rebellion: Ideology vs. Electability

The Republican party line on the Tea Party has been uniformly positive until recently.

The Republican party line on the Tea Party has been uniformly positive until recently. Last night, as ebullient Christine O’Donnell supporters celebrated her win at her Dover headquarters and awaited a concession call from Rep. Mike Castle, word began to circulate that the party had abandoned them.

Immediately after the Associated Press called the race for O’Donnell, the NRSC issued a terse, single-sentence congratulatory note to her campaign. Shortly after that statement, word came into FOX News that “National Republican Senatorial Committee will not be funding O’Donnell’s general election campaign, leaving it up to Palin and the Tea Party Express to do the heavy lifting.” In what reads like a challenge to the Tea Party that delivered O’Donnell’s nomination, the NRSC issued the petulant but diplomatic equivalent of “you’re on your own now.”

This is not the first time in this cycle that the Tea Party has knocked off an incumbent for a candidate that the Republican Party found to be unelectable. In Colorado, little known candidate Dan Maes beat veteran congressmen Scott McInnis for the gubernatorial nomination. Within a few weeks, word began to leak out that the party was seeking a replacement for Maes, and had approached him seeking his withdrawal from the race. Maes refused and, in short order, party loyalists and even the state’s GOP Senate nominee, Ken Buck, publicly pulled their support for Maes. At A Christian Science Monitor breakfast earlier this month, Republican Governors Association Chairman, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, said that he, “had put some money into Colorado—past tense.” He later clarified that, “the RGA hadn’t promised Mr. Maes any help from the beginning.” Maes trails his opponent, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, by almost double digits in some polls. In a three-way race with Constitution Party candidate Tom Tancredo, Maes suffers from an almost 20-point deficit.

The Republican chance for a Senate pickup in Delaware is probably lost. Of the state’s 621,000 plus registered voters only 182,000 plus are registered Republicans. Fewer than 60,000 people voted in the closed Republican primary on Tuesday; while that is enough to make the difference up in close races, this race will not be close. O’Donnell would need to win virtually all Republicans, most independents and a few Democrats.

To make maters for her even worse for Christine O’Donnell, the Delaware Republican Party (and the national party, for that matter) cannot abide her. Delaware GOP Chairman Tom Ross has been outspoken in his opposition to her candidacy for weeks. Republican lobbyist Don Mell compared her nomination to the L.A. riots of 1994. “Burning your house down is not the answer,” Mell said. Furthermore, exit polling from Delaware showed that 44 percent of Castle voters would vote for Coons if O’Donnell won the Republican nomination. A September 7, 2010 Rasmussen Reports Poll shows Democratic Senate nominee Chris Coons with an 11-ponit lead over O’Donnell. It would take a seismic, catastrophic turn of events for Christine O’Donnell to overcome these headwinds in November.

Does this mean that the Senate is a firm hold for Democrats? Some are speculating that for Republicans to take the Senate now is a bridge too far. Nate Silver’s FiveThrityEight blog has employed a model that, before Tuesday, predicted the Republicans had a 30 percent chance of taking the Senate. Today, that chance is reduced to between 16 and 17 percent. Republicans would have to hold all the seats they presently occupy, take over all the seats that lean in their direction (like Pennsylvania, Colorado and Illinois) and win at least four other seats. It is a significant feat, but four of those seats are tossups (California, Nevada, Wisconsin and Washington) and in two of those states (Connecticut and West Virginia) Republicans are within striking distance. Other’s like Vermont, Oregon and New York’s two Senate seats are unlikely turnovers this cycle. 

Few Democrats are celebrating this turn of events, however. The momentum generated by candidates like O’Donnell can be intimidating. MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann stressed that, assuming she does not issue any inflammatory statements between now and November, O’Donnell could ostensibly ride her primary bounce and the wave of voter anger directed at Democratic incumbents right into office. Chris Matthews agreed; “it’s great to win in the fall,” he exclaimed on fellow anchor Rachael Maddow’s program Tuesday. These are valid observations, but the math is difficult for her to overcome.

From the cable-news right, even Karl Rove, appearing on the Sean Hannity program, lamented the likely loss of the Biden seat. Hannity, for his part, seemed content to move the national ideological needle a tick further to the right. That seems to be the Modus Operandi of the Tea Party movement in general; electability be damned, ideology first. This dichotomy is nothing new in American politics; movements throughout history have found general electability to count against candidates in the primary – their very crossover appeal a sign of their lack of ideological purity.

The electability versus ideology argument is usually the fundamental debate in any primary contest. It was the singular debate in the Nevada primary; Danny Tarkanian and Sue Lowden both protested that they had more general appeal than Sharron Angle. Hillary Clinton made and lost that argument in 2008 in her primary contest against Barack Obama. John Kerry made it and won his contest with Howard Dean in 2004. This tradition dates back to the election of 1800, wherein Alexander Hamilton’s admonition of President John Adams was carefully sent to the opposition, with the consequence of splitting the Federalist vote and ensuring the election of Democratic-Republican, Thomas Jefferson. It was not Hamilton’s intention to elect Jefferson president, but that was the effect of his petition against Adams.

Some, like Rove, probably consider ideological litmus tests short sighted. From inside the beltway, committee chairmanships and the ability to dictate the agenda in Washington is far more important than any one candidate’s position on the political spectrum. Besides, Washington has a way of introducing a dose of cynicism to wide eyed ideologues, and the logic of pragmatic maneuvering tends to overcome rigid dogma – particularly in the Senate.

Combined with recent poll numbers for House races that show a Democratic resurgence, the GOP “wave” of 2010 does appear to be receding even before it hits shore. No one is taking this for granted, however, and each party’s strategists will continue to perform as if the “wave” election is upon us. Make no mistake, though, in GOP circles there is hand wringing. If, however, you are a Democrat, there is reason to smile once more.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at

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