The most well-known ghost from campaigns past floating around the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday was Oliver North, the 70-year-old television-show host and Iran-Contra figure who once ran unsuccessfully for Senate in Virginia. But the former Marine Corps officer was far from the only former GOP contender roaming 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, they are continuing to bask in their notoriety among tea-party activists, and looking back wistfully on the fleeting moment when they were the big story in American politics.
For both women, much has changed since their tumultuous bids ended, and not always for the better, with O’Donnell battling the Federal Election Commission over inquires 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 at Maryland’s National Harbor from her home in Delaware, where she won the GOP Senate nomination in 2010 against a moderate Republican congressman, then lost the general election. In an interview, she excitedly touted her recent work, such as a new column in the Washington Times.
But O’Donnell acknowledged that being a recognizable ex-candidate has occasionally been difficult, such as when she was parodied on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” after she declared in an ad that she was “not a witch.”
“It depends on where I go and whether I’m wearing 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 walked around the mezzanine, O’Donnell talked with attendees about her ongoing clash with federal officials, claiming they targeted her for political reasons soon after she launched her campaign. On Friday afternoon, she appeared on a panel about overreach by the Internal Revenue Service, comparing her struggles with those of conservative groups that have drawn federal scrutiny.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a watchdog group, originally filed a complaint with the FEC 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.
O’Donnell, 44, who began her career as a college-age GOP organizer, reveled in the CPAC scene. Whenever a student or former backer asked for a photo, she beamed and obliged.
A few steps away stood Nevada’s Angle, who challenged Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) in 2010, garnering 45 percent of the vote against one of the country’s most powerful Democrats.
Angle, 64, a soft-spoken former home-school instructor from Reno, Nev., said she was at CPAC to reconnect with former supporters and to remind people of her interest in speaking to conservative groups, however small, in their home towns.
“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.”