The most well-known ghost from campaigns past floating around the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday was Oliver North, the 70-old-year television-show host and Iran-Contra figure who once ran unsuccessfully for Senate in Virginia. But he was far from the only former GOP contender roaming around the gathering’s packed halls.
In particular, a pair of failed and controversial Senate candidates from the 2010 cycle - Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle - drew notice. Nearly four years after their campaigns ended, the pair is continuing to bask in their notoriety among tea-party activists, and looking back wistfully on the that fleeting moment when they were the big story in American politics.
For both women, much has changed since tumultuous bids ended, and not always for the better, with O’Donnell battling with federal investigators over inquiries into her finances. But they came to CPAC because they want to stay in the conversation, even if it is on the periphery, as they engage in various political projects.
O’Donnell traveled to CPAC from her home in Delaware, where she won the GOP Senate nomination in 2010 against a moderate Republican congressman, and then lost the general election. In an interview, she excitedly touted her recent work, such as a new column with The Washington Times.
But O’Donnell acknowledged being a recognizable ex-candidate has occasionally been difficult, especially for her, who was parodied by NBC’s Saturday Night Live after she declared in an ad she is “not a witch.”
“It depends on where I go and whether I’m wearing making makeup,” O’Donnell said. “If I have my hair down and makeup on, going to the grocery store or something like that, some people will ask, are you Christine O’Donnell? But if my hair is up, no makeup, I can slip by unnoticed.”
As she roamed around the mezzanine, O’Donnell talked with attendees about her latest initiative, claiming the tax officials targeted her for political reasons soon after she launched her campaign. On Friday afternoon, she appeared on a panel about Internal Revenue Service overreach, comparing her struggles with those of conservative groups who have drawn federal scrutiny.
Back, in 2010, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a watchdog group, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission after news stories about O’Donnell’s use of campaign money surfaced, and after O’Donnell said she used funds to pay rent on her home, which doubled as a campaign office.
Elsewhere at CPAC, O’Donnell, 44, who began her career as a college-age GOP organizer, reveled in the social scene. Whenever a student or former backer asked for a picture, she beamed and obliged.
“It’s just good to be here, and I brought my mom along,” she said. “My dad died in November, and that was really tough, and I took a sabbatical from speeches for a while. But right now, we’re here having fun.”
A few steps away stood Nevada’s Sharron Angle, who challenged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2010, garnering 45 percent of the vote against one of the country’s most powerful Democrats.
Toward the end of the 2010 campaign, Democrats, including Vice President Biden, tied O'Donnell and Angle together, arguing they were flawed and extreme Republican candidates.
“Having one person with such extreme views is not such a big deal,” Biden said at one rally that fall. “But folks, folks they’re all over the place. This ain’t your father’s Republican Party."
Angle, 64, a soft-spoken grandmother and former homeschool instructor from Reno, Nev., said she is at CPAC to reconnect with former supporters and to remind them of her interest in speaking to conservative groups, however small.
“I actually thought the blush would go off the rose after the election, but I’ve been on the road ever since,” she said, chuckling. “In the last few months, I’ve been to Birmingham, Mobile, Dallas, and Phoenix.”
Angle believes the continued booking of her and past tea-party darlings, such as O’Donnell, is due to a growing divide on the right between the grassroots and the GOP establishment that became a running theme in several 2010 races, and continued into 2012 and this year.
“I go out there and I hear sadness and cynicism from conservatives about what is happening inside the Republican Party,” she said.
And in spite of her busy schedule, Angle still lives in the same house she had when she first appeared on the scene, working without a paid staffer and managing a website on her own.
“WordPress, easy press, I don’t know what you call the program,” she said. “I simply go on my server and when it wonders if I want to post a video or something I’m doing, I click yes and leave it at that.”
When she travels, she carries copies of her book, “Right Angle,” to sell and sign, always ready with a pen and a grin.
Angle and O’Donnell are both coy when asked whether they will run again someday, winking and leaving the door open but doing little to give the impression that they are eager to do so.
“My husband would like his life back,” Angle said.
“It depends,” O’Donnell said. “That race was a tidal wave.”