For a time last night, it looked like the shotgun relationship between the Tea Party and Republican leaders was facing a possible split. Christine O'Donnell, the conservative darling in Delaware, had just pulled off the biggest surprise of a primary season filled with upsets.
Down 20 points in the polls just a month ago, Ms. O'Donnell stunned long-time Congressman (and former governor) Mike Castle, winning the GOP nomination for Senate in the Diamond State. A Republican liberal, Mr. Castle was considered a shoo-in against his Democratic opponent in November. While no one accused him of measuring the drapes for his new Senate office, no one--at least no one outside the Tea Party and the O'Donnell campaign--expected Castle's career would end in the Republican primary.
As you probably heard, the GOP establishment wasn't particularly pleased with Ms. O'Donnell's upset. Congressman Castle refused to endorse her, and so did the chairman of the state Republican party, who previously suggested that O'Donnell "couldn't be elected dog catcher: in Delaware.
More distressingly, Texas Senator John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, initially said that his organization would not provide financial support to her campaign for the general election. Mr. Cornyn quickly retracted that vow, but it was enough to get the Democrats (and their media allies) buzzing about a "civil war" in the Republican Party, and suddenly-diminished prospects for taking back the Senate. Republican strategist Karl Rove added fuel to the fire by suggesting Ms. O'Donnell cannot beat her Democratic opponent, a county executive who is a self-proclaimed Marxist.
But if Republican leaders were behaving badly last night, then Ms. O'Donnell hasn't exactly helped her cause in recent weeks, despite that impressive primary win. In an interview with John McCormack of The Weekly Standard(hardly a hostile, left-wing reporter), the candidate sounded downright paranoid, claiming that partisan operatives were hiding in the bushes outside her town home, and even broke into her campaign headquarters in 2008, when she ran against Joe Biden. For good measure, she also accused Mike Castle and other GOP officials of trying to "sabotage" that earlier bid for the Senate. Yet, despite accusations of criminal activity against her, O'Donnell never filed a police report.
Ms. O'Donnell was less forthcoming on other issues that have dogged her operation, including reports that she used campaign funds to pay living expenses, and claims to have studied at Princeton (the university has no record of her enrollment as a graduate student).
There is a lesson in all of this, and it goes something like this: in such a high-stakes election year, Tea Partiers (and Republican leaders) should remember the words of Ben Franklin who famously advised: "we should all hang together, or we shall all hang separately."
Fact is, the movement needs the GOP and the party certainly needs those legions of activists. Let's start with the Republican Party. Less than two years ago, the GOP was at its nadir; Barack Obama and the Democrats cruised to a commanding victory in the 2008 presidential campaign, and Republicans seemed destined for years in the political wilderness. It was the Tea Party, those ordinary Americans who stood up in town hall meetings around the country and galvanized public opposition to President Obama, his health care scheme, and Democrats in general. In the process, they re-energized the Republicans.
So, the Tea Party activists earned the right to endorse their candidates (and oppose RINOs) during the current primary cycle. And, in the process, they've uncovered some real gems, including such impressive prospects as Joe Miller in Alaska, to Mike Lee in Utah. Without backing from the Tea Party, it's unlikely that either man would have won their party's nomination. Now, as prospective senators, they can affect real change in Washington.
Clearly, the Tea Party benefits from its association with the GOP. The party establishment's shabby treatment of Christine O'Donnell has renewed talk of the movement breaking away to form a third party, but that idea is ludicrous. Consider the long (and unsuccessful) history of third parties in this country. And, contemplate the prospect of the Tea Party and Republicans splitting the conservative vote for countless election cycles to come, virtually ensuring long-term Democratic control of Congress--and the White House.
And a final word of advice for the Tea Party: it's always a good idea to look beyond a candidate's embrace of movement principles, and search for any problems that might doom their campaign. An example can be found in Colorado, where the gubernatorial candidacy of Dan Maes has imploded, after it was learned that he was hardly a successful businessman, nor a former undercover agent for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Character counts too, and in that department Mr. Maes is clearly lacking. As a result, Republicans--and the Tea Party--have missed a golden opportunity to retake the governor's mansion in Colorado.
Will Christine O'Donnell's campaign survive similar scrutiny? Time will only tell. In the interim, however, the activists and the GOP establishment need to patch up their differences and get ready for November. They've come this far together, and both sides need to keep dancing with the one that brung them. The alternative is bleak: a new Congress in the hands of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012.