Tea Party Candidates Debate Their Way Inside

Senate candidates supported by the Tea Party rang a similar theme in debates this week: "I'm an outsider." Host Scott Simon discusses the debates with NPR News Analyst Juan Williams.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Tea Party candidates have also won the Republican nominations in several Senate races. Some of them squared off against their opponents in debates this week.

Ms. CHRISTINE O'DONNELL (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Delaware): If you want a U.S. senator who will stand up to the Washington elite, who will put your interests ahead of the special interests and make the tough decisions needed to rein in an out of control Washington, then I humbly ask you to vote O'Donnell for U.S. Senate.

Ms. SHARRON ANGLE (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Nevada): I'm not a career politician, I'm a mother and a grandmother. I was a teacher for 25 years. Senator Reid has been a politician for over 30 years. I live in a middle-class neighborhood in Reno, Nevada. Senator Reid lives in the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C.

Mr. RAND PAUL (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Kentucky): I'm a physician, not a career politician.

SIMON: That was - in turn - Christine O'Donnell of Delaware, Sharron Angle of Nevada, and Rand Paul of Kentucky. We're joined now to talk about this week's Senate debates by our friend, NPR news analyst Juan Williams. Morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And I think I get the theme here. I'm an outsider, I don't even go to Washington to see the cherry blossoms. In fact, when Stephen Strasburg is pitching, I turn off the set 'cause I don't want to watch anything from Washington, D.C. But is this a message that fits some races better than others?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it fits in all three that we just saw, because what you just heard were from three Tea Party candidates, people who are the expression, the personification, if you will, of the anti-incumbent mood, the anger at, the frustration with big government, people who say government's too big, spends too much money, taxes too much.

And so what you see there is saying, you know, you're in the Ritz-Carlton, Senator Reid, and I'm the average guy. In fact, Christine O'Donnell in her ads in Delaware talks about - when she says she's not a witch - I'm just like you. That's become a theme throughout Republican advertising as well as messaging there in the cycle.

The other constant message, I must say, that everybody's laughing about politically, is the use of the term man up, which Sharron Angle...

SIMON: Sharron Angle said to Senator Reid...

WILLIAMS: ...said that to Reid about Social Security, and it's also a phrase that we saw from Robin Carnahan to Roy Blunt in Missouri - man up - and then Kendrick Meeks said that Charlie Crist down in Florida should man up and stop spreading rumors about him dropping out of the race possibly.

SIMON: And then, of course, when uttered by a woman - by a candidate who happens to be a woman, this puts somebody in public debate in a very difficult position.

WILLIAMS: Yes, exactly.

SIMON: But let me ask you, are there some similarities to what we heard a little under two years ago, or two years ago in the Obama campaign for hope and change? And is it more difficult for now the Democrats to use the theme that was so successful for them a couple years ago, because, after all, they're in theory running the shop?

WILLIAMS: Well, right. But you know what's interesting, if you recall, I mean the original Tea Party explosion with Scott Brown winning in Massachusetts, President Obama immediately thereafter was asked to explain, you know, how is it that Scott Brown comes in? What President Obama said, I think, is instructive right now. He said it was the same anger that swept Scott Brown in, is the same anger that swept me into office - people frustrated and angry.

And so for the Democrats to have once - who once said we're the face of change and hope, it's more and more difficult. And I think the tipping point came in terms of Americans' expectations about the economy and jobs specifically, the point at which they stopped blaming President Bush and gave more and more responsibility to President Obama and Democrats in Congress.

SIMON: Something maybe you didn't notice in the debate between Sharron Angle and Harry Reid, is that Harry Reid was actually trying to promote his long experience in Washington as an asset.

Let's listen to this.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): So I respectfully suggest to my opponent that she simply doesn't understand what went on in Washington.

SIMON: And then here's Chris Coons in the Delaware debate.

Mr. CHRIS COONS (Democrat, Delaware): Ms. O'Donnell is not familiar with how bond ratings work.

SIMON: Now, what's your estimation of how the Democrats might be able to make this strategy work? Yeah, yeah, I'm experienced. So what?

WILLIAMS: Right. That's right. And not only am I experienced, I'm able to do a job of governing in a way that's responsible and it goes beyond the anger. You know, Bill Clinton, who was out in Nevada this week, said the thing about Sharron Angle: You're just going to vote for this woman because you're so angry, think about what Harry Reid can deliver for your state.

It's kind of what's being called a Spaghetti Strategy, Scott, which is that every candidate runs - Democrat - in isolation, even though they're all one party, the Democrats. But they run local races and they run away from President Obama at some point, so that they run away from all the claims that they are the incumbents and more along the lines of we're people you know and we're certainly not as extreme as the Republicans.

SIMON: I got a couple of emails this week from people who said don't refer to me as angry. There's a 10 percent unemployment rate and I'm anxious, but don't make my vote seem as if it's some kind of angry spasm. I'm making - trying to make an intelligence choice about the direction in this country.

WILLIAMS: I'm very sensitive to that. In fact, that shows up more than anger, especially among women voters. This is a very interesting thing, you know, like who's the power player here? If you think about it, all the money flowing into Tea Party right now from some sources...

SIMON: Sharron Angle may live in a middle-class neighborhood, but she's sitting on $14 million.

WILLIAMS: Boy, has she had a haul. So you start to think, what are the, you know, what are the forces - the political and financial forces - behind what's supposed to be the grassroots movement? Is it grassroots or is it Astroturf?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I like that phrase. First President Bush used to refer to the Big Mo, and there's been lots of talk about who's most motivated, who's likely - who's likely to vote; in addition to just what people tell a pollster, who's likely to actually get out there and vote. Any indication of that right now?

WILLIAMS: Big time. It's a big time plus for Republicans. And even if you look at the generic battle, just everybody, you know, do you prefer Republicans or Democrats, it has - the margin has closed to plus-six now for Republicans but still an advantage for the GOP as we head towards the election. But when you look at enthusiasm, when you look at anxiety - not anger, Scott, I'm learning -you know what...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: See, we are educable.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Yeah. But Democrats are in power and people who are upset, angry about everything from health care reform to big government to the sense that nobody cares about them and understands their anxieties, that favors right now Republicans.

SIMON: You know, Juan - time will tell.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: NPR News analyst Juan Williams, thanks so much.

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