Friday, September 17, 2010

The GOP and the new adventures of odd Christine

"The vampire the GOP created in its basement is settling in, in its living room."

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, a man with a gift for journalistic distillation, thus brandished that talent Wednesday in describing what happened the day before, after election results from the seven states holding Republican primaries — the last of the preliminaries before the main bout in November.

The “vampire” in question (though “Frankenstein monster” might have been more fitting) are the Tea Party candidates, gaining mainstream visibility with big wins, most notably the Republican Senate primary nomination of Christine O’Donnell, a perennial candidate with a checkered past, who on Tuesday defeated Delaware Rep. Mike Castle in his bid for the Senate seat vacated by now Vice President Joe Biden.

O’Donnell — whose position on abortion paints her as an ardent pro-life conservative and whose stance against popular culture (and past conflation of masturbation and porn with adultery) paint her as an ardent nut — is the 18th Tea Party stalwart to prevail in this primary season.

But despite the inroads the Tea Party cabal has been making in the primaries, the Republican Party what spawned the TPers is growing nervous at the rise of the ... Frankenstein monster it created.

Amid a growing sense that the Tea Party crew may be driving the mainstream GOP off a cliff, there’s concern that past performance in the primaries may be no guarantee of future results in the general election 46 days away.

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You didn’t have to look far or wait long to see how possible that is. On Wednesday morning, flush with confidence, O’Donnell was interviewed on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and said the more or less unthinkable. Carving out a distinction between Tea Party loyalists and the mainstream Republicans represented by Castle, O’Donnell said “I believe we can win without them.”

The “them” O’Donnell was referring to, mind you, aren’t Democrats or independent voters. “Them” referred to ordinary Republican voters. (!) The heads-is-tails atmosphere of an already improbable primary season has reached a kind of bizzarro-world climax. Democratic good-wrench Chris Kofinis, talking with Olbermann on Wednesday night, said about the Tea Party what this blog has observed for months. “They have now paralyzed the established Republicans … They’ve become the boogeyman for the Republican Party. The GOP is now a prisoner of the Tea Party faction.”

The Republican leadership (or what passes for its leadership right now) got that right away. Within hours of O’Donnell’s win, GOP aides told Fox News that the National Republican Senatorial Committee wouldn’t be cutting any checks for her general election campaign. The committee released a statement of boilerplate congratulations "after a hard-fought primary campaign," but not saying much else.

That didn’t last, though: the NRSC, loyal in spite of itself, ponied up $42,000 — the maximum amount allowable — to O’Donnell’s campaign. And there was a flurry of post-election contributions, as donors flocked to a O’Donnell campaign Web site freshly previously scrubbed of policy positions, and put about $1 million into her coffers. Overnight.

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Which doesn’t really change the rising narrative of a broader conservative dilemma. After the primary victories of Tea Party-supported candidate Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky, the GOP is in an existential quandary Jean-Paul Sartre couldn’t get it out of.

The Democrats know it. “Today the Republican Party has shown just how far right it has moved," DNC Chairman Tim Kaine said Tuesday in a statement. "While Americans in Delaware and across the country are eager for both parties to work together toward solutions that move America forward, Delaware's Tea Party Republicans have nominated a self-aggrandizing and divisive candidate who seeks to tear down the progress we've made to recover from failed Republican economic policies that took us to the brink of economic collapse.”

There were other signs of Tea Party strength on Tuesday. Tea Party-backed millionaire developer halfwit Carl Paladino (who said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver “belongs in Attica”) whipped former Rep. Rick Lazio in the New York Republican gubernatorial primary, 62-38. The win legitimized Paladino, who’s had to defend himself against gaffes like having reportedly sent friends e-mail messages that included an image that depicted President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as a pimp and a prostitute. Classy stuff.

The message from Paladino’s primary victory (unlikely to be duplicated in November, a Quinnipiac poll found) is fairly straightforward: a whackjob with money beats a candidate with less money much of the time.

Palladino isn’t expected to prevail in the general election against Andrew Cuomo, New York’s well-regarded attorney general. Considering the state’s historically Democratic leanings, that’s not a surprise.

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But Tuesday night O’Donnell was the main attraction, and quite possibly the canary in the GOP’s coal mine. What’s left to be seen is how the Democrats will make use of what’s really become a civil war within the Republican Party.

There are signs that President Obama and Democrats generally may seize this best chance by taking advantage of one of the country’s pivotal concerns: the tax-cut debate. Some Democratic operatives think that the tax-cut issue may not be the poison for Democrats that may people think it is.

Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who spoke about the matter at a recent Democratic caucus, agrees. “This is an issue that drags Republicans down,” he told MSNBC. “This is an issue that helps Democrats … it creates a framework of choice and it defines the two parties. There’s a difference in the parties reflected in this issue. It’s a real choice. People often think a tax debate is not good for the Democrats. A tax debate is good for the Democrats.”

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Several recent polls bear that out. To go by a plurality of surveys in recent weeks, most Americans favor letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of the country expire at the end of the year. Gallup’s survey found 59 percent of Americans feel that way; CNN’s poll found that sentiment among 69 percent of the people.

Between the support indicated in that polling and the obvious schisms within the Republican Party, the Democrats face a situation ripe for exploiting, assuming they press the populist advantage on tax cuts — what the polls suggest is the lowest-hanging fruit the Dems can expect between now and November.

“We’re in this to win big,” Christine O’Donnell said on Tuesday night. Time (and not much time) will tell whether the Democratic Party is similarly inclined, or if it finds a way to revert to type — never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Image credits: O’Donnell: Associated Press.

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