POLITICS
09/14/2010 11:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Republicans Put All Their Chips On The Tea Party Table

With Reporting By Amanda Terkel

Tuesday's congressional primaries provided an astonishing and symbolic coda to a primary season filled with turmoil, infighting and candidates unique in their politics and policies. But rather than providing firm answers for the general election ahead, the win by conservative candidate Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and the very real possibility of Attorney Ovide Lamontagne's victory in New Hampshire raises some difficult questions about the Republican Party's present and future.

With the primaries almost over, eight establishment-backed Republican candidates have succumbed to challenges from conservatives -- if Lamontagne defeats Kelly Ayotte, that would make nine -- producing a chaos that bred opportunities for Democrats in an otherwise historically awful climate. Earlier Tuesday, heads turned when the National Republican Senatorial Committee released its first ad of the 2010 cycle, defending Tea Party candidate Rand Paul in what should have been reliably safe GOP Kentucky.

In Delaware, meanwhile, the Senate campaign bandwagon run by County Executive Chris Coons (D-Del.) has become suddenly crowded.

"Unless I completely misread my home state, it's tough to see, even in this tough political year, how Christine O'Donnell can get to 50 percent in a general election," David Plouffe, the Delaware native and Obama for America campaign manager, told the Huffington Post. "Thank you, Sarah Palin [who endorsed O'Donnell] ... once again, a big 'Moderates Better Not Apply' banner has been hung outside Republican Party HQ."

"We feel like we have some great opportunities in races that we wouldn't have absent the Tea Party candidates," Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said earlier Tuesday, speaking to the broader political landscape.

But the lessons to be drawn from the primary season are more complex than general-election arithmetic. The GOP, its own strategists admit, is undergoing something akin to an identity crisis.

Incumbents who could hardly be described as moderates have been dismissed over singular votes or actions (see: Bennett, Bob). Candidates backed by party bigwigs have found those endorsements toxic (See: Grayson, Trey). And even Republicans who ended up winning their primary elections had to spend so much money and adopt so many out-of-character positions that they made their candidacies unrecognizable (see: McCain, John).

The purges have produced a period of introspection, but while dramatic, they may not be all that harmful to the GOP's ultimate political objectives

"It is, I think, healthy for the party," said Larry Farnsworth, onetime press secretary to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "Some of the voters are demanding purity and others are more pragmatic. The Republican Party has had a very spirited debate and it will probably continue past November. But at the end of the day, conservatives are going to go to the polls and vote for the more conservative, Republican candidate."

Indeed, while the party may find itself in a more fractious state, data-driven analysts still argue that the elections have produced some favorable outcomes -- mainly, attention and interest from a wider swathe of voters. Bill McInturff, a prominent GOP pollster who played a leading role on the McCain presidential campaign, told the Huffington Post that prior to Tuesday, 56.5 percent of all votes cast in primary elections have been done so in Republican primaries. And while some of those voters were undoubtedly discouraged by the final results, most seem to remain enthusiastic heading into the general elections.

"I've been doing this question for 20 years, asking people how interested are you in voting," said McInturff. "In 2006 and 2008, by a six-to-nine margin, the Democrats were more enthusiastic than Republicans. Since January, Republicans have been 15 to 22 points higher than the Democrats. In 20 years of using this question, I have never had that high a margin and never for this period of time."

That is not to say that the general-election contests are foregone conclusions. Minutes after O'Donnell took the podium to accept her nomination, Fox News reported that the National Republican Senatorial Committee would not be spending money to help her in the general election. "We reserve the right, as the Democrats do, to invest money in any race at any time," NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said of the reports.

A well-connected GOP operative, meanwhile, expressed sincere concern that the candidates the party now counts on to win seats lack a fundamental understanding about the basic realities of campaigning for statewide office. Their primary victories, after all, had been built primarily on the back of grassroots fervor.

"It's not that their views are outlandish" that's going to end up hurting them, the operative said. "It's that they don't know how to put together a credible campaign organization."

In the end, however, all the talk about the tactical acumen of Tea Party candidates and the political enthusiasm of conservatives voters seems likely to distract from the larger, more critical point. The Republican Party has thrown gradualism to the wind, adopting policies unlikely to appeal to moderate voters in hopes that a base-driven tidal wave and general distaste with Democrats will sweep them into power. The strategy was a gambit when conservative leaders began preaching it last year. Now, with the primary season over, it seems likely to pay off -- but the pitfalls are even clearer.

"The Republican Party has a serious problem,' said Celinda Lake, a prominent Democratic pollster. "The Tea Party is like nitroglycerin, and juggling it can blow yourself up."