Tea Party Ascendant With Win in Delaware

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Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The ranks of moderate, establishment Republicans blown sideways by the Tea Party Express just keep growing. The latest upset is in Delaware, where anti-masturbation advocate Christine O’Donnell took down Mike Castle in the GOP Senate primary with 54 percent of the vote.

It's not like Castle wasn't warned. Soon-to-be-former Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, who lost to the tea-party-affiliated Joe Miller last month, called the longtime Delaware congressman last weekend. “She told me to be careful, because [the Tea Party Express] will come at me with everything they've got," Castle told the Hill on Monday.

Castle had what used to win elections in Delaware: a distinguished record in public office dating back to the sixties — serving as governor, lieutenant governor, and a nine-term congressman — and a voting record that appeals to both conservatives and liberals. But not this year. As in Alaska, a virtual unknown with little more than the backing of the tea party and Sarah Palin rode a wave of anger against incumbents and knocked out a moderate, well-liked establishment politician. Unlike Murkowski and Utah's Robert Bennett, Castle was aggressive in going after his opponent's weaknesses, which were numerous.

DelawareOnline noted in bewilderment that in addition to never actually graduating from college, “[p]ublic records show O'Donnell has no steady income, no savings, no investments and owns no property. She rents a room out of her campaign office, which is a town home in a residential community." Shortly after dropping a gender-discrimination suit against her former employer, a conservative printing firm that fired her for misusing company resources, she began her Senate run. She is also facing an IRS lien for $11,000 in unpaid taxes.

As several television programs and websites gleefully noted last night, she is also part of a fringe “chastity movement.” She spoke out against masturbation on MTV in the nineties, a clip of which was played endlessly on MSNBC last night, showing a youthful, pre-blowout O’Donnell, with thick early nineties brick-red lipstick, talking earnestly about how her hypothetical future husband wouldn’t need to masturbate. (She has never married.)

The easy explanation for O’Donnell’s win would be the blessing of her Alaskan fairy godmother. But Sarah Palin’s wand isn’t the only thing that propelled O’Donnell to victory. The stamp of the tea party itself may be more powerful, if the New Hampshire race is anything to go by.

New Hampshire tea-party candidate Ovide Lamontagne, a mid-nineties gubernatorial candidate, took an early lead Tuesday night, pulling away from Palin’s pick, onetime attorney general Kelly Ayotte, whom Palin called a “Granite Grizzly” and a “true conservative” in robocalls to voters. That race is still too close to call.

New York GOP gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino also drew Tea Party support in his lopsided win over Rick Lazio on Tuesday.

The only group that might have been happier than the tea party last night was, paradoxically, the Democratic Party, which has been steeling itself for major losses in November. Going up against extreme Republicans in the general election could be the Democrats' best chance at minimizing lost seats in what is shaping up as the biggest anti-incumbent year since 1994. Political number cruncher Nate Silver calculated that victories by O'Donnell and Lamontagne would reduce the GOP's chances of capturing the Senate to just 16 percent, compared to 30 percent if both lost.

Politico reported that a "visibly unhappy" Karl Rove said on Fox News: “We were looking at 8 to 9 seats in the Senate, we are now looking at 7 to 8 in my opinion. This is not a race we’re going to be able to win.”

Delaware Democratic nominee Chris Coons was so pleased by O'Donnell's victory that his campaign posted her picture on his website. But in an upside-down year, the usual electoral calculations may not apply. Appearing on Good Morning America on Wednesday, O'Donnell had this to offer: "They also said Ronald Reagan wasn't electable."

Related: Tea House 2011