The stunning victory of tea party backed Sarah Palin look alike Christine O'Donnell over establishment candidate Republican Congressman Mike Castle dealt a blow to the Republican party's efforts to gain control of the US Senate come November. However, the implications of the election run much deeper and may represent a problematic shift long-term for the Republican party.
The elephant in the room on this issue, is and must be O'Donnell herself. The GOP establishment said some awful things about her during the campaign. However, a reasonable question to bring up is how much this is a problem because she is an attractive Palin-esque woman. Is it a problem to say these things, if they are in fact true? Indeed, one way the Palin herself has deflected criticism is implying that attacks on her are motivated by misogyny or sexism. Essentially, it is the Hillary Clinton argument, that you are attacking me because you think it is not my place to be out there in the world. However, as evidenced by the Saturday Night Live sketch during the 2008 campaign, that argument only passes muster if the woman candidate has substance like Clinton, or in a less partisan vein, Lisa Murkowski, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Elizabeth Dole (before the Godless thing). Of course, none of these woman, in the eyes of some testosterone laden voters, are in a word, hot. Maybe Debbie Wasserman Shultz, but she's a liberal so I guess that example is partisan.
However, the critiques by the GOP establishment, while mean, do appear too far off. First of all, they were a natural, if politically predictable, reaction to O'Donnell and her Tea Party crowd's attacks on Mike Castle. However, when her former campaign manager comes out against her, you know there are troubles. The portrait painted by her campaign manager and others is not a personality becoming of the United States Senate, unless we are looking for more financial malfeasance used for self-enrichment. For the past five years, O'Donnell has essentially become a professional candidate for office. She is accused of using her campaign funds to pay her rent and personal expenses while not paying her campaign staff. What does this say? Sadly, it suggest that we have here a woman either so fanatically conservative or so desperately in need of attention that she simply cannot function except as the perennial fringe candidate. Only in a state the size of Delaware or Rhode Island with their relatively small populations and sizes could somebody like this survive the normal weeding out process.
With the national GOP establishment reluctantly behind her, her campaign website has undergone a bit of a cleansing, purging it of the endorsements by groups advocating violence. However, she still stands by a radical conservative agenda and represents a decreasingly less covert revival of the religious right (in 2006, O'Donnell called homosexuality an identity disorder, I doubt she has had an epiphany since then). However, she is not alone, South Carolina Jim DiMint has also given voice to the demands of the religious right.
Cleansing of the campaign website will not be enough to keep the GOP relevant. They may very well win the battle this November, but they are still in a position to lose the war. If the party is pulled further to the right, religion included, and purges moderate of the party, it can never be competitive long-term outside of a handful of states and congressional districts. However, that list will not, again in the long-term, include big Republican givens like Texas, Florida, or even Arizona. The states where Tea Party candidates are competitive this year, but not eternally, are states that are generally and solidly moderate states like Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Colorado or solid red states like Alaska.
It is in states like Delaware where they will have the most trouble because even if the fringe candidates can get elected once, they are guaranteed defeat next time around. Consider, once again, Sen. Scott Brown. A small part of his victory was due to Tea Party support, but it was support he was careful then as now to keep at arm's length. For now, he can straddle the right side of the line on fiscal issues, while having no choice, but to stray to the left on things like financial reform or unemployment extensions (frightening as it is to consider either anything, but bipartisan). The GOP may be riding a tidal wave to gains, but it is also because some seats like Browns, or those of the Senators from Maine, whose defeat might be certain in a primary today, are not up for reelection.
This rightward shift is not really a sudden surge of moderates and independents running to the right or even to the GOP. Most of these people were on board the Grand Ole Party Express, as it were, prior to November, 2008, but many had been demoralized by the wave of Obama's victory or otherwise taken for granted as a part of the Republican's tent. Now, what they have organized is less a coup over the government at large, but just the party of which they were always a part. Capitalizing on Democrats' lack of voter enthusiasm, moderates' fears and frustration and Republicans successful portrayal as the party of "NO," their candidates could stand to win general elections this year.
The irony, may be, however, is that they will only serve to tie up the gridlock in Washington further. First they will discover as any starry-eyed neophyte learned, that "reforming" Washington is neither as easy or as appealing as it seems in sounds bites and 30 second ads. Consider the hollowness of Republicans plans to reform Congress, like for example in the area of earmarks, an issue they never thought pressing when they were power only four years ago. Second they will be even more uncompromising than many of the Republicans they replaced in primaries all but assuring an impasse with Democrats who, even under the rosiest of GOP expectations, will comfortably retain their filibuster.
The best hope that the Republicans may have, if they ever hope to have long-term viability, is to attempt to modulate the tea party element, better classified as the arch-conservative wing of the Republican party (the increasing religious undertones preclude the libertarian label). If successful, they would have an acrimonious, but working relationship with the right structured on a realistic center, much like Democrats have with their left flank. Even under this scenario, liberal Republicans acting as foils to conservative Democrats like Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson or Louisiana Congressman Charlie Melancon seem all but unlikely.
The country is not really running into the warm embrace of the Republican party. Rather many Americans are frustrated and frightened by the state of their country, made possible greatly due to Republican policies, which remain insufficiently corrected. Others, including supporters of President Obama, as evidenced by today's economic forum with the President, are "exhausted" defending him and frustrated by not seeing him do enough. Indeed, Obama has failed to fight hard enough, holding on until it was too late, his desire to maintain that unifying post-partisan air of his campaign. Additionally, chronic problems remain within his executive staff (not the cabinet departments, his people there are solid). His White House staff, while qualified on the one hand, lost the message battle back when end-of-life counseling was mutilated into "death camps" and was otherwise totally unprepared to govern against the push of conservatives. If Obama wants to make anything out of the rest of his term and have a hope for another, a shakeup is in order.
What is truly tragic, however, is that no matter how this election roles out, the loser could be the American people. Absent a real epiphany among either side to actual negotiate to a middle, real "change" is unlikely no matter what the composition of Congress. Republicans should contemplate either their victory or defeat in 2010 carefully. Stung Democrats, Obama included, may get the picture and modify their message, tactics, and priorities to return in 2012. Under such circumstances, 1994esque success in 2010 might not feel nearly as good if 2012 turns out to be as satisfying to Republicans as 1996 ended up being.