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Tea party wins in northeastern primaries could bode well for Democrats

By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; 11:08 AM

In the era of the "tea party," is the moderate northeastern Republican in danger of going completely extinct? Tuesday's primaries could give a clue.

Although tea party candidates have bumped off establishment favorites in GOP primaries this year, such results have generally come in conservative states where the victors also have a serious shot at winning in November.

The Northeast, meanwhile, is known for a more moderate, even liberal, electorate.

In these parts, moderate congressional Republicans have seen their numbers decline over the past few election cycles, with many longtime officeholders sent packing by the Democrats.

That is less likely to happen in this political environment, but the split within the GOP could be just as damaging: If contenders backed by tea party groups manage to win several closely watched northeastern primaries Tuesday, their victories are likely to have the effect of handing those seats to the Democrats in November.

That is because these races are occurring in moderate-minded districts where conservative candidates would have limited appeal in a general election, even in a year when public sentiment has swung against the Democrats.

The biggest of these races will be the Delaware GOP Senate primary contest between the state's popular congressman, Mike Castle, and Christine O'Donnell, who is backed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express. The primary is open only to registered Republicans.

(Interactive: Track Sarah Palin's endorsements)

Delaware also presents Democrats with one of their few opportunities to pick up a House seat this year - the one that Castle currently holds - especially if businesswoman Michele Rollins, the more moderate GOP contender, loses to developer Glen Urquhart.

A similar dynamic will be at work in other northeastern primary races Tuesday.

In New Hampshire's 2nd District, for example, former congressman Charlie Bass is believed to be the strongest contender in the general election - but first he has to get past two more conservative opponents in the GOP primary.

One of them, Jennifer Horn, received only 41 percent of the vote when she ran for the seat in 2008 against Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes, who is leaving it to run for the Senate.

And in New York's 23rd District, the contest evokes echoes of last year's special election, which was an early test of the tea party movement. In that 2009 primary race, accountant Doug Hoffman elbowed out of the race a more moderate Republican who had been the pick of the party establishment.

But while that showed the strength of the movement within the party, it also divided the moderate vote and created an opening for Democrat Bill Owens, who went on to win the seat in a district that hadn't elected anyone but a Republican since shortly after the Civil War.

Hoffman will be on the GOP primary ballot again, against a more moderate candidate, businessman Matt Doheny. He will also be on the Conservative Party's ballot.

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