Storming the Castle

09/15/2010 07:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You can forgive the pragmatic, establishment Republicans who run the national party machinery for feeling a bit besieged this morning. Because the Tea Party keeps continuing to storm the GOP's castle. The party regulars are manning the battlements, but to no avail. They see their stronghold being overrun by a mob over whom they have no control, and they are shaking in their boots at the prospect. You can picture these GOP faithful rushing about the castle's keep, desperately trying to convince the rabble that eating all the seed stores will result in famine next year, but to no avail as the Tea Partiers pillage at will.

The reason for this long-winded and increasingly-convoluted introductory metaphor is, of course, the defeat of one Castle in particular -- Mike Castle, moderate Republican of Delaware -- in last night's Senate primary in the First State. The Republican Party establishment watched last night in absolute horror as Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell swamped Castle in the primary. The horror stems from the fact that this will likely mean Joe Biden's old Senate seat will remain in Democratic hands this November. Republican voters chose purity over electability, plain and simple. They'll now have a purest-of-the-pure Tea Party candidate, who will go on to lose what would otherwise have been a very easy pickup for the Republicans. This may also doom any Republican hopes of taking control of the whole Senate, as it is pretty hard to chart a path to a majority without picking up the Delaware seat.

Democrats, of course, are pretty gleeful at the prospect, especially since this election season (so far) hasn't had a whole lot of such moments of glee for the party. But now, longshot Democratic candidate Chris Coons has indeed given Democrats a bright spot to focus on. So let's get on with the focusing, shall we?

The biggest winners of last night's Delaware primary are, in order of importance: Chris Coons, Sarah Palin, and Christine O'Donnell. The biggest losers last night were: Mike Castle and Beau Biden.

Starting with the losers, Mike Castle must be particularly stunned this morning. Delaware is a lightly-populated state, so lightly-populated that they only get one member of the House of Representatives. What this means is that their House member has to run a statewide race. Mike Castle has been this representative for a generation, winning his last nine races. He had sky-high approval rates in the state, so he figured it was time for him to step up to the Senate after Senator Joe Biden left to become Vice President Joe Biden. What happened next is what happened to the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 -- the biggest-name party regulars decided to sit the race out, because they figured it was unwinnable. Castle, they reasoned, would just be too hard to beat. So the big names took a pass on the race. The biggest of these names is Biden's son Beau, the state's Attorney General. Which is why both Biden and Castle are the big losers of last night (that sound you hear off in the distance is Biden repeatedly kicking himself for not running).

The biggest winner from last night is obviously Chris Coons. He had never run for a statewide office in Delaware before, and most people (before last night) put his chances of beating Castle at pretty close to zero. Now he has a new lease on life. Overnight, he just sprang from "probable loser" to "frontrunner and probable winner." It's rare that this happens to a politician in such a dramatic fashion -- especially seeing as how it happened as the result of an unforced error by the other party.

The next-biggest winner last night was none other than Sarah Palin. Palin continues to prove the size of her clout within both the Republican Party and the Tea Party in a dramatic fashion. In other races where Palin has endorsed candidates, alternate explanations have abounded about why her chosen candidate won. But O'Donnell's victory can be traced directly to Palin and the Tea Party Express, who poured money into the race at the very end (Delaware is a very cheap media market, so it didn't take all that much to do so). After the 2010 elections take place, the entire political punditry world will shift its attention to the 2012 presidential race (some pundits have already shifted their focus even now). Over on the Republican side, there are a whole bunch of likely candidates who will be vying for this attention. But none of them have shown the clout and power that Palin has so far shown, in raw numbers of people turning up at the ballot box. Think about it -- have you heard any stories this year about who Mitt Romney has endorsed? Or Mike Huckabee? Neither have I. And Palin won't even be tarnished if her endorsed candidates ultimately lose, because the Republican nomination will take place in the same primary elections she's been picking winners in. The primaries, to state the obvious, determine the party's nominee. Which is why Palin is, more and more, becoming almost the de facto frontrunner for the Republican 2012 nomination.

Christine O'Donnell was also a winner last night, but she'd better enjoy this sensation while it lasts. Like most Tea Party candidates, she's said a few rather extreme things in her time, and this is the point where they're all about to catch up with her. If I were her, I'd immediately begin campaigning on some sort of distracting issue in the hopes that all her previous words get conveniently ignored in the fray. Perhaps she should come out for Delaware claiming the entire DelMarVa peninsula (which, today, includes all of Delaware, Maryland's Eastern Shore, and a tiny slice of Virginia) as their own -- maybe that could fire up her state's voters enough that they'll ignore the other kooky things she's said. At this point, it's about the only chance she'll have.

But while it certainly is fun to expose the kookiness of yet another Tea Party candidate, Democrats shouldn't get too giddy. Granted, the Tea Party candidates have given Democrats a lot of leverage with the voters heading into November. Democrats everywhere can run under the unifying theme of "Too Extreme!" and point to the Tea Party candidates as proof. This helps them out a lot with independent voters, who may not relish the thought of voting Democratic this year, but also are prone to shy away from candidates that are perceived as too extreme (in either direction).

But the news is not all good for Democrats on this front. Sure, putting Delaware back in the Democratic column feels great, but not all Tea Party candidates are fairing so poorly. Rand Paul, whom all Democrats love to mock, is (if polls are to be believed) going to win in Kentucky. Florida's polling has shifted to Tea Party candidate Marco Rubio recently, and away from former Republican Charlie Crist. Joe Miller is running consistently in the lead in Alaska. And the Tea Party will almost surely pick up Utah's Senate seat as well. That's a lot of Tea Partiers we'll likely be addressing as "Senator" in the very near future. Perceived Tea Party craziness will likely keep Delaware's seat in Democratic hands, but there's only one other major Senate race where Democrats have a chance to beat this perceived craziness -- Nevada. Harry Reid may win a race (because of the opponent he's drawn) that he should, by all rights, be getting trounced in -- but this is going to be a close race, and Sharron Angle may actually squeak out a win.

So, when you put things in perspective, the Tea Party candidates don't look all that weak outside of Delaware. I certainly don't want to rain on the Democratic parade this morning after the stunning Republican primary in Delaware, because (as I said) we've had few enough of these bright moments in the campaign so far. Because, while the Tea Party may have stormed the wrong Castle last night, come November quite a few of them may indeed storm their way into the Senate itself. Which is not exactly cause for celebration.


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