By Russell Berman - 09/16/10 12:34 AM EDT
Democrats on Wednesday seized on the upset victory of Delaware Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell as a sign of Republican chaos and a ray of hope for the party’s uphill fight to hold the House and Senate this fall.
A day after O’Donnell defeated longtime Rep. Mike Castle for the Delaware GOP Senate nomination, politicians of all stripes were grappling with the year’s most unexpected demonstration of Tea Party influence.
A Public Policy Polling survey released Wednesday showed Democratic nominee Chris Coons opening the general-election campaign with a 16-point lead over O’Donnell. Polls had shown Castle consistently ahead of Coons.
For Democrats, the result was a brief but welcome break from a Beltway focus on their own party infighting and predictions of defeat in the midterm elections. Party leaders hailed the O’Donnell victory as a gift-wrapped Senate seat that many had given up on as lost, as well as an opportunity to exploit divisions in the GOP and paint their opponents as beholden to the far-right.
“What happened for Democrats last night was very positive,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters after addressing the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation on Wednesday morning. “We were very pleased with the candidates that we drew, and they offer a great contrast in the election as to the clarity of the choice.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) echoed Pelosi in a separate appearance.
“The bottom line is they’re a deeply divided party,” Hoyer told reporters, adding that the division “is going to hurt them.”
At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs argued that the fallout from O’Donnell’s win would extend beyond Delaware.
“There is no doubt — I don’t think anyone would disagree — that the intra-party Republican anger has changed the complexion of a number of state and district races,” Gibbs said during his daily press briefing, explaining that the disputes make “winning those races for Republicans a fundamentally harder task.”
Earlier, he noted that top Republicans like former Bush adviser Karl Rove and the Delaware state party chairman had deemed O’Donnell unelectable.
Rove stuck to that position on Tuesday, citing O’Donnell’s history of tax problems and her false claim that she had earned a bachelor’s degree.
“The Republicans in Delaware nominated someone they don’t believe could win — that the party chairman said could not be elected dog-catcher,” Gibbs said, referencing a quote from the Delaware GOP chairman, Tom Ross.
Vice President Joe Biden, who held the Delaware Senate seat for 36 years, until 2008, said on MSNBC that Castle’s defeat sent a signal that “no moderates need apply” for positions with the GOP.
O’Donnell, a 41-year-old marketing consultant, overtook Castle with financial support from the Tea Party Express and endorsements from Sarah Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), among other prominent conservatives. Castle, one of the most centrist Republicans in the House, had the backing of the GOP establishment from the moment he entered the race.
GOP leaders and strategists such as Rove argued that, while the Tea Party could field viable candidates in red states like Alaska, O’Donnell was too damaged and extreme a candidate for Delaware. Ross, the state party chairman, was quoted as saying O’Donnell was “not a viable candidate for any office in the state of Delaware.”
With O’Donnell generating a flash-flood of national attention, Democrats began trying to tie her to other Republican candidates. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (Fla.), a vulnerable first-term Democrat seeking reelection, sent out a fundraising pitch headlined “Don’t let the ‘Christine O’Donnells’ win.”
“With last night’s nomination of Sarah Palin’s favorite candidate, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, one thing has become perfectly clear: the Far Right is trying to take over the country one congressional seat at a time,” Kosmas wrote in the appeal.
Yet while Democrats were clearly overjoyed at O’Donnell’s victory, some party lawmakers warned against an electoral strategy based primarily on demonizing the GOP and Tea Party.
“That would be detrimental,” Rep. Mike McMahon (D-N.Y.) said. He said that while the movement’s overall agenda may be too extreme, “many people feel the Tea Party philosophy has some meritorious aspects.” And McMahon noted that the Tea Party was demonstrating considerable viability in general-election match-ups as well as primaries, citing the tight race in Nevada between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) and Sharron Angle, a Tea Party insurgent who defeated an establishment-backed opponent to capture the GOP nomination.
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said Democrats needed a more affirmative message than sending out sirens about Tea Party extremism. “If that’s all we’ve got going for us,” he said, “that’s not anything very hopeful.”
Jay Heflin and Jordan Fabian contributed to this report.