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Republicans ride the tea party tiger

The 2010 election brought scores of tea party-backed candidates into Washington.

Ed Rogers, a Washington lobbyist and veteran GOP strategist, said he worried that the tea party movement will cost Republicans in November. "The energized minority wing within the GOP that was supposed to help the party have major gains in November is instead, killing a few of our best candidates in the primaries," he said. "The 'Party of No' is being run by its leaderless 'Hell No!' caucus. I fear on election night, we in the GOP will revel in our purity while Pelosi and Reid celebrate their reelection."

But Alex Castellanos, another Republican strategist, said the only people who could have been surprised by the Delaware result, after what happened in Kentucky, Nevada, Colorado, Alaska and elsewhere, were those in an out-of-touch "royal establishment" who think the country wants more business as usual in Washington.

"Americans don't want government to work," he said. "They want it to stop working because they suspect every time it does work, they pay a price. Harry Reid ought to be quaking in his shoes."

Also taking a hard line was Keith Appell, a conservative strategist. "Grass-roots conservatives are sending a message that a congressional majority is worthless if liberal Republicans are going to cave and vote with Democrats on key issues," he said. "Conservatives and independents want responsible leadership that listens to the people instead of lecturing them. The party must respond to this or any majority it wins will be short-lived."

Republicans like Castellanos point to Nevada as an example of how conventional wisdom has been tossed into the trash can this year. Sharron Angle, the tea party candidate, won a divisive primary and was promptly written off as too conservative and too unreliable to beat the unpopular Senate Democratic leader. But Angle remains competitive against Reid months after having been written off.

The same holds for Kentucky, where libertarian Rand Paul, the tea party-backed nominee, leads Democrat Jack Conway. Could the same pattern play out in Delaware? Much depends on how O'Donnell conducts herself in the next few weeks, but what many Republicans were saying Wednesday morning is that the purity of her message, whatever her personal flaws, will energize the conservative base.

"In politics as in war, insurgencies are very hard to handle," said Republican Alex Vogel. "Just as GOP establishment candidates haven't figured out to how to deal with it, I would argue that Democrats should take no comfort in [Tuesday's] results. . . . I reject the argument that there is a tea party fighting against the Republican Party. The last time I checked, all of these candidates were running for the Republican primary. As long as they have an 'R' in front of their name on the ballot, I think it spells a rough November for Democrats."

Democrats did not discount the power of the anti-Washington express that is now rolling toward November. "I think it's too optimistic to think that any tea party candidate in any race is going to lose because they are too conservative," said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. "But, in certain places, I think we now have a better matchup in these elections."

Democrats also see opportunities ahead. "There has been a grass-roots coup against the Republican establishment, and as a result the Republicans have become for all practical purposes the party of Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint," said pollster Geoff Garin. "Ronald Reagan's party of the big tent no longer exists."

That was certainly the message coming out of Delaware, where Castle had been a pillar of the GOP establishment for more than two decades, a liberal Republican in a Democratic state who had prospered politically knowing his electorate and his party's principles. But in 2010, inside the Republican Party, that's no longer acceptable.

Anti-Washington passions still point to a big election for Republicans in November. But the party leaders will still be left with agonizing challenges about how to chart the party's future, which will shape the 2012 GOP nomination battle and color their prospects for building the kind of broad-based coalition all parties need to prosper.

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