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No ‘trophy’ for Tea Party

Back in late April, Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), bragged about his party’s chances in what he called the Senate’s three “trophy seats”: President Obama’s former seat in Illinois, Vice President Joe Biden’s former seat in Delaware and Majority Leader Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada. In addition to getting Republicans closer to the Senate majority, winning those elections would prove a propaganda bonanza — increasing the embarrassment Democrats suffered after losing Teddy Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts. 

The midterms are still the GOP’s to lose, but the party’s fortunes have reversed in those three “trophy” seats. 

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In perhaps the biggest prize, Illinois, the GOP lucked out with an early primary. Republican Rep. Mark Kirk would’ve suffered the fate of Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska and Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware — rejected by extreme primary voters — if Tea Party activists had time to organize. Instead, the GOP got exactly who they wanted. 

They might’ve been better off with a teabagger. 

It turns out Kirk is a real-life Walter Mitty, incapable of opening his mouth without crafting an alternate fantasy life. The focus on Kirk’s lies has taken much of the sting off his attacks on Democrat Alexi Giannoulias as a “mob banker,” and they seem locked in a race to the bottom.

In Delaware, Castle’s ignominious primary loss transformed a near-guaranteed Republican pickup into a near-guaranteed Democratic hold. While grassroots conservatives rally to GOP nominee Christine O’Donnell, sentient Republicans realize that the nomination of O’Donnell — an anti-masturbation activist who admits to having once worshipped Satan — has ceded the seat to the Democrats. 

And in Nevada, where Harry Reid seemed sure to lose just a few months ago, the GOP handed him a lifeline by selecting the Tea Party-fueled Sharron Angle as his opponent. Angle has subscribed to Bircher conspiracy theories against fluoridated water and once campaigned against black uniforms for her local high school football team because the color is “thoroughly evil.” While Reid’s favorability ratings are in the gutter to the point where he usually would have no business being reelected, he’s inched ahead of Angle in the polls, and is now flirting with passing 50 percent support — all thanks to the Tea Party.

Without those trophy seats, the GOP is that much further away from the real trophy — the majority. With guaranteed pickup opportunities in North Dakota and Arkansas, and solid opportunities in California, Colorado, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin and even West Virginia (a Public Policy Polling survey released Tuesday shows the Democratic nominee, popular Gov. Joe Manchin, trailing his relatively unknown Republican challenger), a GOP Senate majority is tantalizingly close. But they can’t get there without the trophy seats.

Furthermore, the NRSC’s first big ad blitz this cycle wasn’t in a Democratic-held seat. Instead, it dumped at least $250,000 to defend the Kentucky seat currently held by outgoing Republican Sen. Jim Bunning. The right-wing U.S. Chamber of Commerce followed up with another $300,000. That’s over half a million that could’ve been spent playing offense. Instead, the GOP has to fight hard, and spend a lot, to bail out the Tea Party-backed Rand Paul.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s write-in bid in Alaska and Gov. Charlie Crist’s independent bid in Florida will also require party resources in states that should have been easy GOP holds. It’s clear that despite the energy they’ve brought to the game — and the intensity gap between Democrats and Republicans is a function of that energy — conservative activists have made the GOP’s path to 51 more difficult, rather than less. And there’s no trophy for that.


Moulitsas is the founder of Daily Kos and author of American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right.