Another Republican primary, another Palin-backed Tea Party candidate surprise victory. This time the “upset” occurred in the Delaware Republican Senate primary, where Christine O’Donnell beat the Republican establishment-backed candidate Representative Michael Castle. For most of this campaign polls suggested that Castle, a former Delaware Governor and the current Congressman from that state, was poised to win the Republican Senate primary and likely to defeat the Democrat in the race to replace long-time Delaware Senator Joe Biden. But two weeks ago Palin stepped in to endorse O’Donnell, and tonight it appears that O’Donnell has pulled off a major upset.
I will have much more to say about this and other races tomorrow, but I wanted to make two cautionary points in anticipation of the likely media take on this race. First, there will be a tendency to overplay the impact of Palin’s endorsement. The reality is that O’Donnell’s victory owes more to the backing of the Tea Party and the more general backlash against incumbents than it does to Palin’s endorsement. Put another way, Palin’s endorsements appear effective because she has capitalized on a broader voter anger against the political establishment. As evidence, consider the New Hampshire Republican Senate primary where the candidate backed by Palin, former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, looks like she may well lose the Republican primary to Ovide Lamontagne, who had portrayed himself as the genuine conservative in the four-way race. Ayotte, in contrast, was viewed as the establishment candidate.
My point is that the success of the Palin-backed candidates owe less to her endorsement and more to the broader forces that are contributing to what appears to be a rather favorable environment for anti-establishment candidates.
This leads me to my second point. A recurring argument advanced by political pundits such as Nate Silver is that the influence of the Tea Party will actually help Democrats in the general election. The logic behind this claim is that Tea Party-backed candidates are too conservative to win in the general election. I’m not sure this is true – at least not to the extent suggested by pundits. I wonder whether they are underestimating the broader political forces that are contributing to the Tea Party victories in the first place. I will delve more deeply into these issues in future posts, but for now I want to lay down a couple of cautionary markers: Palin is not as influential as the media may suggest, and the Tea party-backed victors are not as out of the mainstream as those same reports may indicate.
More tomorrow as the final results are tabulated… .
Addendum: As most of you know, Ayotte in fact appears to have won a squeaker in the New Hampshire Senate Republican primary – perhaps more evidence of Palin’s prowess in picking winners.