Two years ago, who would have guessed that the big political story today would be whether Republicans had lost a sure Senate seat pickup in Delaware?
That context of the Democrats’ political slide since the heady days of faux Greek columns set against the Rockies — the idea that Joe Biden’s old seat was considered a goner, and that Barack Obama’s old seat may also go Republican in November — is necessary to understand how Christine O’Donnell’s upset win over longtime pol Mike Castle matters, and how it doesn’t.
There is little doubt that O’Donnell will have a much harder time winning in November than Castle would have. This is not a Pollyanna-ish view of last night’s primary results. Delaware isn’t Alaska, or even Nevada.
Many of the 27,000-plus Delawarians who voted for Castle may well go Democrat or stay home in the general election. And if Democrat Chris Coons beats O’Donnell, there will be a lot of GOP grumbling about the tea party groups that supported her.
But support for O’Donnell — or, more precisely, opposition to Castle — was a stand the tea party pretty much had to make.
Those who think the tea party exists to elect Republicans are mistaken. Tea party folks very often will end up voting for Republican candidates, but that says more about Democrats and their policy stances than it does the GOP.
What the tea party movement has said all along is that it is tired of politics as usual. If its members had backed Castle, who favors legislation like cap and trade that is anathema to them, in a Republican primary, it would have lost all credibility. Delaware may not be Kentucky or even California, but then Mike Castle isn’t exactly Carly Fiorina, either.
And whatever gains it — and the GOP — made this year would be very, very vulnerable come 2012. People remember 1994, but not only for the way the Democrats lost their majorities in Congress. They remember it for the way Republicans ended up losing their way not too long after they took over.
The tea party needed to serve notice to Republicans that it has not become a wholly owned subsidiary of that party. It needed to remind the party that its members favor principle over partisanship. If its members’ message and interests are going to have any long-term impact, they will survive one primary loss in a reliably blue state.
But what about practicality?
I don’t think practicality is a very big concern here. Even if Castle had won last night and ended up as a senator, the GOP probably would have had, at best, 48 or 49 senators come January. The party’s best hope then would have been to persuade a couple of conservative Democrats — Nebraska’s Ben Nelson comes to mind — to switch parties and possibly give it a slight majority.
But even having 51 senators would have been no guarantee of legislative success in that chamber. The area it would have affected most would be judicial appointments, and even there the GOP most likely will have enough votes to block any extreme nominees.
As long as Republicans win a majority in the House, they will be able to shape the agenda of the next Congress. That agenda will have to win some Democratic support in the Senate regardless of which party holds a narrow majority there. And if the GOP tide in November isn’t strong enough to win the House, it wasn’t going to be strong enough to win the Senate even if Castle had been on the ballot in Delaware.
(And for you die-hard Republicans who just want to win: Not having a majority in the Senate may also make it easier for you to claim Democrats are still in the way come 2012 — and to deny President Obama the ability to blame you on his way to re-election, as Bill Clinton did.)
If the tea party is going to have any lasting impact, it will still be helping to elect senators its members like in 2012. And it will be winning the public debate in a way that leads to true inroads in blue to bluish states.
In Delaware yesterday, it had to show that it believes that will be the case.