Partly because it’s the most vital movement in contemporary politics and partly because they’re hilarious, we’ve spent over a year now trying to figure out what the Tea Party means. While several of the philosophical questions—and even some of the ontological ones—remain unanswered, Tuesday made one practical outcome clear. Christine O’Donnell has defeated heavily-favored Delaware legislator Michael Castle in the Republican senate primary, thanks to the enthusiastic backing of the Tea Party. Where Castle polled favorably against likely Democratic opponents in the general, O’Donnell does not. It might be because she’s crazy. “A lot of people said we can’t win the general election; yes we can!” she told the Times. “It will be hard work, but we can win if those same people who fought against me work just as hard for me.” Two things: 1) Agreed that Christine O’Donnell will win the election if the people who don’t like her start liking her and 2) now she owes Barack Obama a nickel.
She also owes her bank a couple hundred thousand dollars. O’Donnell has defaulted on her mortgage, was exposed in the press as falsely claiming to have graduated from college for the last 20 years—she left due to unpaid tuition—and was accused of using campaign donations for personal expenses during this election, as well as when she ran in 2008 and 2006. Over the past year, she’s reported an income of $5,800. Don’t worry, though—she still lives in her own townhouse in Wilmington.
According to the Times, her Federal Election Commission file from 2007 contains a handwritten note reading, “We are not professionals and for many of us, this was our first campaign!” Clearly, she embodies the can-do/can’t-think spirit that has made the Tea Party such a powerful force. She also captures the movement’s increasing interest in social conservatism. O’Donnell is a former abstinence counselor who appeared on MTV in the 1990s to condemn masturbation and has criticized funding for AIDS research. She drew fire for calling Barack Obama “anti-American” in 2008—which was considered an extreme thing to say at the time—and has generally been a machine for making absurd statements.
All of this is to say that O’Donnell might not be palatable to the general electorate of Delaware, who sent Joe Biden to the Senate for years and is typically known for producing moderate Republicans. Her more-conservative-than-thou style of campaigning—which included implying that Castle, 71, is a homosexual and calling him “unmanly”—is the kind of thing that works in a primary, when the most committed and often most extreme members of a party come out to vote. Whether it will fly in a general election is questionable, and by “questionable” I mean “almost certainly out of the question.”
Yesterday, Karl Rove called her “unelectable.” O’Donnell’s success, along with that of a couple other Tea Party candidates in senate races around the country, have shaken the narrative of a Republican landslide in November—at least in the press that concocted that narrative in the first place. For the past year, the rise of the Tea Party has been cited as evidence that American voters are dissatisfied with incumbents, particularly Democratic ones. While that may be true, the extremity of the Tea Party candidates’ views appear likely to help Democratic candidates in individual elections.
It all comes down to the unanswerable question of just how much of America the Tea Party actually represents. In a slow summer news cycle, they’re the biggest thing since the Whigs. That may just make them a trend piece, but the Tea Partiers themselves believe they’re part of a groundswell. In this fascinating Times/CBS poll, 84% of Tea Party respondents said their views reflect those of mainstream America. The rest of the poll, which compares their answers to those of randomly selected respondents, indicates that they don’t.
Christine O’Donnell believes that she can win in November. She also believes that she can live in a house without paying for it, tell people she has a bachelor degree without graduating, and satisfy campaign finance laws by explaining to the FEC that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. It’s the triumph of hope over expectation—or, less charitably, of confidence over intelligence.
If that’s not the story of the Tea Party, I don’t know what is. Perhaps it will end with Senator O’Donnell, but perhaps the remaining non-crazy wing of the Republican Party will realize that there’s a price to be paid for telling the loud and stupid that their President is socialist conspirator. Frankly, I would consider that a satisfying denouement.