Is O’Donnell just a footnote?

Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics takes a relaxed view of the O’Donnell nomination. Yes, he says, it almost certainly means Republicans will lose a seat they would otherwise have won. At the same time, it doesn’t affect their chances of taking the Senate “all that much”. Given that control of the Senate may turn on the result in one or two states, I have some trouble holding both of those ideas in my mind at the same time.

Trende goes on to say that “this doesn’t mark the end of the GOP”, reminding us that the Republican party has been torn between its establishment and its base many times before — which is true enough. Then he says:

What’s different this year is the depth and intensity of the anti-establishment anger.  The same forces that ended Mike Castle’s career are the same forces that are propelling the GOP toward historic midterm election gains. In other words, some pundits aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. When historians look back on the 2010 elections, O’Donnell’s win over Castle is likely to be nothing more than a footnote in a broader story of what will likely be a very good GOP year.

It’s right that tea-party enthusiasm is helping to propel the GOP “toward historic midterm election gains”, but disaffection with Democrats among centrists and independents is, I would guess, at least as important for that outcome, and has nothing to do with the tea party. If the Democrats get whipped in November, it will be as much because independents turned against them as because the Republicans got out their base. The O’Donnell nomination might make a lot of independents wonder whether they want to vote for either party. Most likely the Republican base would have turned out regardless. In other words, tea-party enthusiasm carried to the absurdity of nominating O’Donnell is a net negative in electoral terms–not just in Delaware, but nationally.

Beyond November, tea-party enthusiasm could propel Sarah Palin to the Republican presidential nomination — the O’Donnell phenomenon scaled up to the national level. Something to think about. O’Donnell’s win over Castle might, as Trende says, prove to be no more than a footnote this year. On the other hand, it might be a sign of things to come.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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