All over the country right now elected moderates in the Republican Party are probably not sleeping easy as the result of Christine O’Donnell’s surprise victory in Delaware. The reason for their dread is that frankly O’Donnell is a bad candidate, Mike Castle was a really good general election candidate and Delaware is extremely blue state. They may be thinking if O’Donnell can beat Castle in deep blue Delaware, none of us are safe.
Christine O’Donnell’s victory last week is different from other Tea Party-backed primary upsets. Marco Rubio forced moderate Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party in Florida, but Rubio has been a good candidate with successful history in politics and was electable in a swing state like Florida. In Nevada, Sharron Angle beat Sue Lowden but Lowden was damaged goods and the state likely an unlosable race. Ken Buck was polling as strongly as Jane Norton in Colorado’s general. Despite Alaska’s Senate candidate Joe Miller clearly being less electable than incumbent Lisa Murkowski, the state is red enough that in this current political environment Miller’s credibility might not matter.
With O’Donnell the dynamics are very different. O’Donnell is a bad candidate. She has already run for statewide office twice and lost. She has a host of bizarre statements and positions that can be used against her from fear of mice with human brains to her vocal opposition to masturbation. Her polling numbers are terrible in the general election and she’ll likely lose.
On the other hand Mike Castle was also a great general election candidate because of his unique history in the state. Not only was he almost guaranteed to win but national Republican groups probably didn’t need to spend a dime to help him, freeing up money for tighter races. Despite it being a good year for Republicans, having an almost guaranteed pick up in one of the blue states in the union is a very rare thing for a party. There is probably no other moderate in the Republican Party who could more justifiably use the electability argument in their defense.
This is what should make O’Donnell’s victory so deeply frightening to GOP moderates everywhere. O’Donnell was the “wrong” insurgent candidate, Castle was the “wrong” moderate to try to take out and Delaware was the “wrong” state. Yet despite all that Castle was still taken out. What this means is there is no moderate Republican, no matter how electable, no matter how blue their district and no matter how poor their potential primary challenger can truly feel safe.
The move might not be as foolish as for conservatives many think
Many are trying to depict the conservative support of O’Donnell as pure foolishness costing Republicans a seat in the Senate, this may not be the case. The loss of a single seat which would vote with them 60-70% of the time is a clearly a loss from their policy perspective. But over the long term I can see how the sacrifice might be worth it. By putting the fear in every moderate Republican everywhere in the country, O’Donnell’s primary win could have the effect of moving rightward dozens of conservative members of Congress who now feel unsafe voting against their base.
Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League — probably one of the most powerful and suave political activists in American history — understood the importance of fear. Wheeler forced through the passage of the 18th amendment not because huge majorities in Congress on a personal level strongly agreed with prohibition, but because they were afraid to vote against the prohibitionist base. In politics you don’t elected officials to agree with you; you just need them to be too afraid to vote against you.