Lesson from Christine O'Donnell defeat: where tea party overreached

Christine O'Donnell's Senate loss to Democrat Chris Coons in Delaware shows that sheer numbers can trump tea party buzz and underscores the importance of thoroughly vetting candidates.

Jason Reed/Reuters
Tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell prepares to deliver her concession speech Tuesday night in Dover, Delaware. She lost to Democrat Chris Coons, but claimed victory for changing the political system.

Christine O’Donnell lost on Tuesday. Does the defeat of a Delaware Republican Senate candidate – albeit one whose past actions and present positions earned her a lot of media attention – say anything about the state of US politics?

Well, one thing it says is to not bet against the political forecasting skills of Karl Rove. After Ms. O’Donnell beat establishment candidate Rep. Mike Castle (R) in the primary, Mr. Rove openly insisted that she was unelectable. Some Republicans complained that President Bush’s former political guru was breaking an unwritten rule – never (publicly) say anything bad about another Republican.

But Rove was right.

“It gave me no pleasure to say that she was unlikely to win,” said Rove following her loss to Democrat Chris Coons. “But this again provides a lesson. This is a candidate who was right on the issues but who had mishandled a series of questions brought up by the press.”

Another thing that O’Donnell’s experience might reveal is that it’s indeed important to vet a candidate’s press history. And by history, we mean a long way back.

O’Donnell was dogged to the end of the campaign by old video of her appearances on Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” and other talk shows. All we have to say here is one word: “witchcraft.”

She was quickly defined by her past comments to Mr. Maher about her experimentation with witchcraft as a youth. If Delaware GOP primary voters had known about these words before they made their choice, perhaps they’d have opted for Mr. Castle after all.

And her loss may show the limits of the tea party movement's reach. Delaware is a very blue state. While its GOP voters may have been energized by the tea party message of smaller government and less taxation, Democrats won with sheer numbers. Something similar happened in neighboring Maryland, where an incumbent Democratic governor, Martin O’Malley, cruised to an easy victory on a cushion of votes from traditional Democratic constituencies such as unions and minorities.

O’Donnell herself said that despite her loss at the polls, her Senate race was a victory because the Delaware political system and the Republican Party as a whole will never be the same.

“Our voices were heard and we’re not going to be quiet now,” said O’Donnell in her concession speech. “This is just the beginning. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Indeed, the telegenic O’Donnell may have an easy time finding work as a commentator on cable news shows, following in the footsteps of another tea party favorite, ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

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