Stunning Primary Season Reaches A Stunning End

Christine O'Donnell, GOP Senate candidate in Delaware.

hide captionChristine O'Donnell rode Tea Party support to victory in Delaware's Republican Senate primary.

Rob Carr/Associated Press

Two largely unknown Republican Senate primary candidates, driven by Tea Party movement money and energy, rocked entrenched party opponents Tuesday — threatening to put control of the upper chamber out of the party's reach this fall.

In the most-watched race of the night, Christine O'Donnell, a marketing consultant with a trail of debt and questions about her veracity — but armed with endorsements from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and conservative darling Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina — crushed Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware’s contest.

And in New Hampshire, lawyer and one-time gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne was riding Tea Party support and an endorsement from DeMint to give former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte a scare. In that race, Palin had thrown her support behind Ayotte. After leading in initial vote returns, by early Wednesday Lamontagne was trailing Ayotte by about 1,000 votes with 85 percent of precincts reporting.

Meanwhile, in New York, Tea Party-backed candidate Carl Paladino scored an upset win over former Rep. Rick Lazio in the race for the Republican nomination for governor. Paladino once badly trailed party-endorsed Lazio, but had pulled even in recent polls. He moves on to face Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo, New York's attorney general and son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo. Paladino begins well behind Cuomo in the polls, just as he did in the primary battle with Lazio.

What have the primaries told us about the mood of voters (angry?) the muscle of the Tea Party (bulging?), and the path ahead for Democrats (difficult?) and Republicans (bouncing back?)?

NPR asked some savvy political observers. Scroll down the page to see what they wrote or click on a name to go directly to that person's analysis:

Diana Banister, conservative strategist at Shirley & Banister; George Bruno, ambassador to Belize in the Clinton administration; Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Andrew Ian Dodge, Maine coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots; Doug Gross, 2002 Republican nominee for governor in Iowa; Dick Harpootlian, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.

Aubrey Jewett, political science professor at the University of Central Florida; Chris Lehane, Democratic consultant and 2000 Gore campaign spokesman.

Ed Rogers, deputy assistant to President George H. W. Bush; Kristen Soltis, pollster and policy research director at the conservative-leaning Winston Group.

An insurgent's win over a choice of the establishment is a scenario that has become increasingly familiar to Republican Party leaders, who have struggled to harness the energy of the new movement of fiscal conservative and small-government advocates.

Both O'Donnell and Lamontagne would be expected to have difficulty attracting moderate and independent voters in the fall, translating into more trouble defeating their Democratic opponents.

According to the latest conventional wisdom, Republican control of the Senate, only recently seen as tantalizingly close, appeared a more distant reality Tuesday night.

Castle, a former governor, was considered a favorite to win the seat long held by Vice President Joe Biden, and Ayotte was a surer bet than Lamontagne.

Shortly after Castle conceded the race, the respected Rothenberg Political Report, which rates congressional races, moved the Delaware Senate race to "lean Democrat." It previously had been rated "lean Republican."

The Rothenberg analysis: "Lacking an impressive resume and unlikely to garner significant national Republican support, O'Donnell clearly looks like an underdog against New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, who is suddenly transformed to the favorite in the general election."

"While Tea Party activists are jumping for joy at the primary results, it's Democrats who will have the last laugh in Delaware," Rothenberg added.

For her part, O'Donnell told supporters Tuesday night that "if those same people who worked against me work just as hard for me, we will win."

And Wednesday on ABC-TV's Good Morning America O'Donnell said she can win the race in November even without support from the national Republican Party.

Ovide Lamontagne, GOP candidate for Senate in New Hampshire.

hide captionOvide Lamontagne, Republican Senate contender in New Hampshire.

Cheryl Senter/Associated Press

Fitting End

Tuesday's news seemed a fitting end to a rip-roaring primary season that opened in February with optimistic Republicans predicting a takeover of the U.S. House. But only a few were dreaming — publicly, at least — that it would also be possible to wrest Senate control from the Democrats.

With 59 senators in the Democrats' caucus, it would take an epic few months for Republicans to change that math in their favor.

But epic they — and everyone else — got.

It has been the season of "Mama Grizzlies" and Glenn Beck, of Palin endorsements, Tea Party stunners and economic anxiety. The 24-hour, conversation-on-Internet-steroids veered from guns to high heels, from border fences and professional wrestling to exaggerated resumes, military and otherwise.

Coloring it all was the seeming diminution of voter appetite for moderates of stripe.

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA), who lost his Senate primary back in May.

hide captionSen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) couldn't hold off a challenger from within his party — and lost in a May primary.

Win McNamee/Getty Images North America

Ask Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who ran right to win his primary, about that. And now ask Castle, considered among the most moderate Republicans in Congress.

Party Disfavor

Democrats, led by an increasingly unpopular president and shackled by stubbornly high unemployment rates, braced for the worst come fall. And Republicans banked on blocking Obama's legislative agenda and corralling the potent, emerging movement of small government, fiscal conservatives fed up with both parties.

But voters — especially those fed up with both parties — have a way of messing with the best-laid plans.

Mark the date: May 18, 2010. That’s when the season kicked into gear, when both parties were hit with seismic jolts that laid bare voter anger and anxiety — and growing party establishment impotence — that would continue to unspool over the summer and into fall:

— Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania saw his five-term Senate career ended by upstart challenger Rep. Joe Sestak, who rebuffed entreaties by party leaders to drop out.

— Incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the moderate Arkansas Democrat, was forced to a runoff by union-backed challenger Bill Halter, their state's lieutenant governor.

— And Tea Party loyalists, in their first major electoral muscle flex, helped catapult eye doctor Rand Paul — son of libertarian hero Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) — to a GOP Senate nomination win in Kentucky over establishment favorite Trey Grayson, the Kentucky secretary of state. How establishment? Grayson is considered a protege of GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Establishment Vs. Tea Party

Establishment favorite. Tea Party favorite.

Those descriptors would become the shorthand that would strike fear in the hearts of GOP leaders agonizing over how closely to embrace Tea Party followers — while watching "establishment" primary candidates fall again in Nevada and Colorado and Alaska to "Tea Party favorites."

Utah Republicans in May, pushed by the state's Tea Party, declined to nominate three-term incumbent Sen. Robert Bennett for another run. In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist dropped his Republican registration and is running for the Senate as an independent after being out-maneuvered by Tea Party hero Marco Rubio for the party’s support.

Rubio in Florida, Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado, Joe Miller in Alaska — and now O’Donnell and maybe even Lamontagne. Their Tea-fueled wins have upended political business as usual.

Angle's win revived the fortunes of her Democratic opponent, incumbent Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who once topped the list of most-endangered senators. O'Donnell robbed Republicans of what many predicted would be an easy race for Castle against Democrat Chris Coons, a county executive. And a Lamontagne win in New Hampshire would boost the chances of his Democratic opponent, Rep. Paul Hodes.

Fiscal conservative purists have clearly made politics difficult for pragmatists like longtime GOP strategist Ed Rogers, who says "delusional" elements in the party may believe that losing an election on principle is better than winning.

"Politics is all about addition," he says, "not subtraction."

The proof will come in the fall, but Rogers is only partially optimistic that some of the new anti-establishment outsiders can win in November.

"Experience has taught me that, in the end, politicians tend to make the best politicians," Rogers says. "And the purists may have only succeeded in re-electing [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.”

Let The Election Begin

With all major primaries completed — Hawaii holds its primaries Saturday — the parties already have shifted to fall campaign mode.

Democrats are attempting to negatively define House Minority Leader John Boehner, who is acting more and more like the speaker-in-waiting. Republicans continue to attack Pelosi, and run against Obama and government.

There will be debates in the seven weeks before the fall election about Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, the military’s policy banning openly gay Americans from serving in the military, and how and whether the Tea Party movement defines a new Republican Party.

The signs still point to Republican gains in the fall. But McConnell, and other party leaders, are no doubt already puzzling out how to meld their new colleagues into the fold.

So what does all that's happened already mean for what's to come in November? Here's what Rogers and some other veteran political observers are thinking:

DIANA BANISTER (Conservative strategist)

"For those who thought 2008 was about change, then the 2010 election has to be about revolution. Americans are in full out revolt over what is happening in Washington as they no longer feel they are being represented in Washington by Republicans or Democrats. Incumbents, the establishment and career politcians are feeling the effects of this revolution.

"What started as complete outrage over the health care bill and the policies of the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill (immigration lawsuits, the stimulus package, bank bailouts, taxes and regulations on businesses) has led to Americans of every walk of life getting involved in changing the direction of the country.

"They are studying America's founding principles and have realized that a big, centralized government is not an answer to their problems."

GEORGE BRUNO (Clinton-era ambassador)

"I have been struck by the enormous amounts of campaign money spent, especially by self-funding multimillionaire candidates in Connecticut, Florida, California, New Hampshire and other states. It is almost as if some think they can buy a governor or Senate seat, even if they have no record of public or civic service. And maybe they can, but our democracy is poorer for it.

"Voters seem especially gullible. Close to 25 percent wrongfully believe President Obama is a Muslim and not a U.S. citizen. Candidates, especially with a Tea Party label, want to abolish Social Security and Medicare, and the departments of education and energy. We have seen the abuses of Wall Street, Big Oil and Big Insurance, and candidates with a straight face call for less regulation. Rand Paul [Republican Senate nominee in Kentucky] says he would not have voted for the '64 Civil Rights Act. In Nevada, [Republican Senate nominee] Sharron Angle wants to reserve her 'Second Amendment options' against a 'tyrannical' federal government. What is happening to our politics? I am hoping we will see some sanity emerge as we get closer to November. But I am not placing any bets."

FERGUS CULLEN (Former New Hampshire GOP chairman)

"Many new Tea Party activists will become disillusioned with politics if electing a new Republican majority in the House doesn't result in the instant reversal of the growth of government. More traditional Republicans, meanwhile, make a mistake if they confuse this wave of anti-government sentiment with voters falling in love with Republicans again. Pragmatic moderates in both parties aren't winning many primaries, leading to yet more polarized and more ideologically homogeneous caucuses as candidates play to shrinking bases. Do we really want more issues to go the way of immigration, now even more difficult to resolve than three years ago?"

ANDREW IAN DODGE (Maine Tea Party Patriots)

"For the Tea Party movement it was a lesson in proper politics. Many Tea Party participants and groups had never played with the big boys. They were quite shocked how vicious it gets in primaries. One Tea Party movement wag quipped, 'Considering how fast the candidate we helped ran away from us once he won, I now know what a used condom feels like.' The movement needs to learn not to fall for sweet words and attention so easily. They need to be wary of anyone seeking their support. It was a lesson in why it's not a good idea to endorse, as it divides more than it unites. Lessons to be learned for 2012 and beyond."

DOUG GROSS (Iowa Republican)

"Thoughts: Primaries give us a foreshadowing of what's to come. And 2010 was no exception. The Democrats' strategy was to hold on for dear life, while trying to push the Republicans farther to the right than the general election electorate. That is a strategy that is doomed to fail. In doing so, they acknowledge that they are out of step with the center/right views of the country and hope that deception will cloud the vision of voters in the fall.

"The Republicans are poised to win big, but are also trying to ride a bronco.  They have clearly won the intensity battle and that is their biggest asset heading into the fall. But, when that intensity gets so hot, it can blind and nominating candidates that can't win could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

"Either way, Americans want change and they are not happy with the kind they are getting from the Obama administration. The key independents who decide elections are no less disaffected today than they were in 2008. They are just poorer today and that is why they have swung from Obama to O'Donnell.

"And the intensity they bring will continue to make the pundits scratch their heads as the unelectables get elected this fall."

DICK HARPOOTLIAN (South Carolina Democrat)

"The result of the Tea Party surge in the Republican primaries is not without historical precedent and gives credence to the phrase 'Pride cometh before the fall.'

'The 'Know-Nothing party' of the mid-19th Century skyrocketed to political prominence and power on the backs of an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic fervor. Sound familiar? Replace Muslin with Catholic and you find a big chunk of the Tea Party constituency. The history of the mid-18th Century is that hate, as a basis for political action, burns brightly, but quickly and so the Know-Nothing party quickly faded to oblivion after running up an impressive string of wins.

"The  primary wins in Kentucky, Delaware and Nevada GOP primaries, among others, are based on the hate and fear the Sarah Palins and Jim Demints foment across the land. They want to nationalize the anti-Muslim 'Ground Zero Mosque' element and bring Americans together who hate their government. So far it has worked ... in the Republican primary process. Will the more moderate middle of American buy this message of fear and hate  in November? let's hope not."

AUBREY JEWETT (University of Central Florida)

"Lessons from the 2010 Florida primaries:

— "Republican voters are more motivated than Democratic voters. Democrats have about 600,000 more registered voters than Republicans in Florida, but approximately 400,000 more Republicans turned out in the primaries.

— "Republican voters are looking for conservative candidates. One of the most important stories is who was not in the Florida Republican Senate primary: Gov. Charlie Crist. He was considered a moderate RINO [Republican in name only] by many in the GOP base. When polls made it clear that conservative former speaker of the House, and Tea Party favorite, Marco Rubio was going to easily defeat the governor, Crist left the party to run as an independent.

— "Republicans are also looking for outsider candidates. Rick Scott defeated GOP establishment favorite Attorney General Bill McCollum.

— "Democratic voters are looking for traditional Democratic candidates. Billionaire Jeff Greene sought to use his millions to run as an outsider for the Florida Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate but was beaten soundly by African-American Rep. Kendrick Meek."

CHRIS LEHANE (Democratic consultant)

"The angry voter, the Tea Party and the 21st century Elmer Gantrys are all symptoms of America's brooding, omnipresent anxiety. In a way that neither party has spoken to, the public 'gets' that the American dream is being fundamentally challenged. The lesson of 2010 goes far beyond a mere 're-framing' — Democrats need to address this anxiety by:

— "Providing a Big Idea: a unifying thesis for protecting the American dream.

— "Articulating a governing philosophy: defining the appropriate role of government.

— "Creating a dialectic: fighting for families against a defined threat.

— "Promoting exceptionalism: optimistic 'boosterism' that we are special."

ED ROGERS (Lobbyist; White House aide to George H.W. Bush)

"While the Republican Party is poised for substantial gains in November, the party might have dimmed its prospects by nominating some candidates who won't have the strongest appeal in the general election.

"Unapologetically, the Republican elected leaders in Washington have stopped bad policy and have been criticized as being the 'party of no.' Well, that party of no includes a 'hell no' caucus. The hell no caucus has won some primaries, and those candidates may not be the most appealing to independents and more moderate voters.

"There's always a delusional element within the party that can contort logic in such a way to make them believe losing an election is better than winning elections. But politics is all about addition, not subtraction. I’m a long-time party conservative, and I wish conservatives could get elected everywhere. But, being a Republican is not one-size-fits-all. Let's face it: The Republican that can win in Alabama is different than a Republican that can win in Colorado or California. We need to elect the best Republicans we can given what a particular state will support or even tolerate.

"So the proof will be in the pudding. We will see if the new anti-establishment outsiders can win in November. A few probably will, but experience has taught me that in the end politicians tend to make the best politicians, and the purists may have only succeeded in re-electing Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid."

KRISTEN SOLTIS (Conservative pollster)

"Many political observers and consultants have a very traditional recipe for candidate success that focuses on money, name I.D. and things like endorsements. What this cycle has shown is that all of these things are secondary to message. Voters are upset, frustrated and listening clearly for candidates who can give them any sense of confidence that they've got solutions to get the country working again. This has meant that Tea Party candidates have a chance to knock off incumbents and establishment folks even when outgunned on the traditional metrics, but their victory isn't always guaranteed. It is those candidates who understand the Tea Party, as well as the concerns of moderate and independent voters, who will have the best chance in November."

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