O'Donnell Preaches Anti-Elite Message : It's All Politics After riding Tea Party fervor to a stunning win in Delaware's Republican Senate primary, Christine O'Donnell brought her us-against-the-D.C.-ruling-class-elites message to a Values Voter crowd, promising a "revolution of reason."
NPR logo Christine O'Donnell Preaches Anti-Elite Message To 'Values Voters'

Christine O'Donnell Preaches Anti-Elite Message To 'Values Voters'

Delaware Senate Republican candidate Christine O'Donnell delivers remarks at Value Voters Summit in Washington, D.C. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Christine O'Donnell, who rode Tea Party fervor and funding to a stunning win Tuesday in Delaware's Republican Senate primary, brought her us-against-the-D.C.-ruling-class-elites message to a decidedly friendly Washington crowd Friday afternoon, promising a "revolution of reason" that will stick it to the Beltway "popular crowd" this fall.

"They call us wacky, they call us wingnuts," O'Donnell said to a crowd of 2,000 conservative activists who filled a Washington hotel ballroom Friday afternoon at the Annual Values Voter Summit. "We call us 'We the people.'"

Reading from notes and appearing only mildly nervous before the friendly audience, O'Donnell, 41, laid out a warning to those who would underestimate the anger and desire for changed that has gripped American voters.

They call us "aging Reagan staffers and home schoolers," she said, prompting laughter from the crowd. "They're trying to marginalize us, put us in a box."

"We're not trying to take back our country," she said. "We are our country." The crowd rose in one of several standing ovations during her 18-minute speech.

And she briefly addressed criticisms of financial problems and questions of veracity that have dogged her - and have led to top Republicans in her state and nationally to dismiss her as a disaster for the party in the fall.

Yes, she said, referencing issues she had obtaining her degree and paying back due college tuition, "it took me over a decade to pay off my student loans."

One problem O'Donnell told the audience she never had to worry about? "Where to dock my yacht" to save taxes, she said, a reference to Democratic Sen. John Kerry's short-lived decision to berth his yacht outside his home state of Massachusetts for tax purposes. Kerry is Congress's richest member.

The speech was not a conservative tour de force like the red-meat offering that made her mentor, Sarah Palin, a household name after her appearance as the newly minted GOP vice presidential pick at the party's 2008 convention.

Palin endorsed O'Donnell over the establishment pick, moderate GOP Rep. Mike Castle. But it had Palin-esque echos and was, "a good first impression," says Lori Slough, a conference attendee from Orlando who describes herself as a Tea Party activist and registered Republican.

Like many, if not most, of those attending the conference, Slough said she only became familiar with O'Donnell in recent days. O'Donnell, she said, "gave a good speech, with a few witty lines."

"She's relatable to me," Slough says, characterizing criticisms of O'Donnell by former Bush strategist Karl Rove as the last gasps of a fading power center of the party. "He's defensive, but he's outnumbered," she said. "The pot has been boiling in the party since the Bush administration, and now disgruntled people are storming the streets."

O'Donnell was a late addition to the speakers' schedule, penciled in after her historic win. But she was clearly camera ready, with fresh help from top D.C.strategists, references to Reagan and Gingrich, attacks on "Obamacare" and bailouts, and message chock full of buzz words and push back against government influence - in the economy, in the environment, and in "what kind of commercials we can run."

Her biggest applause line: The government will "buy your daughter an abortion," she said, but not a "sugary soda" in the school vending machine. Len Deo of Parsippany of Whippany, N.J., said Friday's summit was perhaps the friendliest crowd O'Donnell can expect in a campaign that's already gotten pretty ugly.

"I think she's a fresh, new breeze," says Deo, who heads the conservative New Jersey Family Policy Council. " People are sick and tired of politics as usual. "He predicts that "average Americans" will forgive O'Donnell her past struggles, because they will be able to relate to them.

"If perfection were a requirement to be on Capitol Hill," he says, "you'd have a lot of empy halls filled with dust."

It's that sentiment O'Donnell is no doubt banking on as she transitions to a general election campaign.