Republicans ride the tea party tiger

The 2010 election brought scores of tea party-backed candidates into Washington.
By Dan Balz
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 12:59 PM

Call it a civil war, an insurrection or merely an insurgency. By any measure, the establishment leadership of the Republican Party has lost control and is now being pulled along toward an unpredictable, uncertain future.

What happened Tuesday in Delaware, where conservative Christine O'Donnell shocked moderate Rep. Michael Castle in the Senate primary, may have been the snapping point inside a party whose leaders have watched nervously as "tea party" activists delivered a series of embarrassing rebukes to establishment-backed candidates in primaries across the country.

The overnight reactions split dramatically inside the GOP, judging from e-mails flowing in the wee hours, as party strategists and others attempted to digest what by all accounts was the most stunning outcome in a year of surprises.

Good for the tea partiers, said some GOP strategists. They are the leading edge of an anti-Washington movement that will wipe out the Democrats in November and threaten President Obama's reelection hopes in 2012. Message trumps messenger and the message this year is stop the madness in Washington. People in, Washington out!

Not so, others argued. Politics is about addition, not subtraction. The tea party forces have substituted purity for common sense and are engaged in a purge of the Republican Party that now makes winning a Senate majority far harder in November. Whatever the outcome, the tea party movement's conservatism could leave the center of the political spectrum open to Obama and the Democrats, if the president is smart enough to reclaim it.

These arguments will continue to rage between now and November and very likely after the results of the midterm elections are known. There will be no certain answers about the future for the Republicans; there never are in a political climate that can shift as dramatically as it has from 2004 to 2006 and 2008 and now to 2010. No election outcome can predict the shape of the electorate two years into the future.

But there is no question that Republicans are riding a tiger in the tea party movement. Delaware wasn't the only shocking result Tuesday. In New York, Republicans turned against the establishment candidate for governor, former representative Rick Lazio, in favor of a bombastic conservative businessman, Carl Paladino.

Whatever happens in November, the leadership of the party is on notice that the grass roots is watching, sternly, and is prepared to punish anyone who strays from what they perceive as party orthodoxy.

"Voters just smashed the establishment right in the teeth," said Kevin Madden, a GOP strategist. "The voters in Delaware were thoroughly uninterested in aligning themselves with the perceived status quo, to the degree that they're even willing to risk losing a Senate seat."

Republican John Weaver said the upheaval is a natural outcome of the sins of Republicans when they were last in power, and lost the confidence of their conservative base with spending, earmarks and scandals.

"It is clear no one is in charge," he said. "No one person. No one entity. Nor is there a unifying theme. It is natural that our party would be in the wilderness, searching for the right way. And it is natural there will be political bloodletting in the process, between conservatives and extreme conservatives."

But he added: "The victories we're about to achieve in November have not been earned by us, but rather given to us by an out-of-touch, big spending president. We better learn our lessons quickly or this wilderness march will last much longer."

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