WASHINGTON – Looking at the primary season in the rearview mirror, the image that appears most clearly might be the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag – the adopted symbol of a conservative movement that shocked the Republican establishment time and again, culminating in surprising wins Tuesday night.
Now the road leading to the November general election conjures a new image: a “tea party” juggernaut that is pushing nearly all Republicans to the right, but also may be creating new chances for Democrats to hold on to congressional majorities.
By winning the GOP nomination for Delaware’s Senate seat Tuesday, Christine O’Donnell joined seven other tea party-backed Senate candidates who want to shrink government and slash federal programs.
All the candidates have called for a repeal of President Barack Obama’s health care bill. Some have advocated deep changes to Social Security, eliminating the Department of Education, cutting environmental regulation and withdrawing from the United Nations. Democrats believe they have helped cement an image of GOP extremism out of step with voters.
Within the GOP itself, tea party activists also face high stakes in November. The election could determine whether they will be hailed as saviors of conservative principles, as they believe, or are remembered as out-of-control purity police, as detractors say.
A cluster of general election successes for tea party candidates would invigorate those who want to push the Republican Party to the right, reduce the size and mission of the federal government and compromise less. Tea party losses in key races, meanwhile, could shift the momentum back to those favoring more ideological diversity in the party.
The battle between the factions has been waging for years – but rarely was it so public than this election season.
On Tuesday night, Republican strategist Karl Rove lashed out at his own party’s nominee in Delaware for what he called “nutty” statements. The National Republican Senatorial Committee issued only a terse statement of congratulations.
The reaction laid bare the frustration the Republican establishment feels about the lack of pragmatism and political calculation in the tea party’s approach.
As if to prove the point, tea party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said Wednesday: “I don’t want the majority back if we don’t believe anything.”
O’Donnell, a one-time abstinence advocate with no experience in office, is widely expected to have trouble wooing Delaware’s moderate and independent voters. And the win for the tea party movement was described by some as a win for Democrats – mostly by gleeful Democrats themselves.
“I think the message is: ‘Moderates aren’t welcome. Moderates keep out,’ ” said Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, chairman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
However, it’s not yet clear that is the message moderate voters are taking away from the primary battles.
In Kentucky, Rand Paul, the tea party-backed Republican candidate for Senate, has maintained a lead over Democrat Jack Conway, despite controversy over Paul’s civil rights views. Paul said the government shouldn’t force businesses to follow civil rights laws, but later declared his support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In Nevada, a swing state with a large number of independents, perennial activist Sharron Angle is running neck-and-neck with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Running in the general election could moderate positions advanced by tea party-backed candidates. Paul and Angle made notable shifts in rhetoric after winning nomination. Angle stopped describing her support for “phasing out” Social Security. Paul has downplayed talk of his libertarian background.
“If you’re trying to rebuild a majority coalition, even with the tea party and Republicans, you don’t get there,” said Republican strategist David Winston. “You need independents.”