By MARSHA MERCER
Thank you, wacky voters of Delaware and New York. Without you, we’d still be hip-deep in predictions of a Democratic disaster at the polls in November.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not endorsing the inexperienced, Tea Party-backed candidates who won Tuesday’s primaries in the First State and the Empire State. Nor did the results there end rampant speculation that Democrats are in big trouble with midterm elections.
But I am glad the 2010 campaign storyline has changed, finally. Angry voters in Delaware and New York, building on Tea Party strength earlier in the primary season, made it happen.
For months, we’ve heard and read countless permutations on the whither-Congress theme. Stories about Democrats’ potential loss of the House and perhaps the Senate became the political equivalent of the bedbug epidemic. The news media went gaga about the possibilities, running out every imaginable scenario. Merely reading about either topic made some people itch.
While November may still prove disastrous for Democrats, the final primary contests raised Democratic hopes and managed to accomplish something not even the president could. President Obama invoked a dreary future under a Republican House Speaker, John Boehner, but the storyline wouldn’t budge.
It took ordinary Americans voting in primaries to change the narrative of the fall campaign.
Nothing whips heads around faster in political and media circles than the unexpected. When candidates endorsed by the Tea Party activists trounced establishment Republicans in the Delaware and New York primaries, the national narrative pivoted instantly.
Suddenly, the story is that September’s Tea Party triumph sets the table for a deep Republican disappointment in November. While the House still is within GOP reach, Republicans may find it more difficult to wrest control of the Senate because the seat formerly held by Vice President Joe Biden will more likely stay Democratic.
The emergence of Christine O’Donnell adds fascinating new elements to what-if calculations.
Thirty thousand people in Delaware voted for O’Donnell, a perennial candidate with a hazy work and educational background. She beat Rep. Mike Castle 53 percent to 47 percent.
Castle had been so favored, however, that he hadn’t even prepared a concession speech; a speech reportedly had to be written on the fly Election Night. And no wonder: Castle has had a lifetime of public service. He has won a dozen statewide elections, including two as governor and nine as Delaware’s only U.S. House member.
O’Donnell, for her part, had the endorsement of Sarah Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. The Tea Party Express group ran TV ads on her behalf.
Said O’Donnell: “The commonsense men and women of Delaware are tired of the same-old coming out of Washington. They don’t want more of the same. Well, we are not more of the same.”
She’s right about that. Although she hews the Tea Party line on lower taxes and smaller government, her social views raise eyebrows. On abcnews.com, the headline for a news video read: “WATCH: Christine O’Donnell’s Masturbation Stance.” It linked to a 1996 documentary in which an earnest O’Donnell explains why as a Christian she’s against masturbation.
In the New York gubernatorial primary, a real-estate mogul in his first campaign for public office beat former Rep. Rick Lazio. Carl Paladino, like O’Donnell, also had Tea Party backing and has strong conservative social views. He opposes gay marriage and is against abortion even in cases of rape and incest. He has said he’ll use eminent domain law to keep property in lower Manhattan free of an Islamic Center.
Republican leaders are concerned about how such social issues will play this fall with voters.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told the New York Times that as he has traveled, “I’ve talked to a lot of folks who are basically independents who say: I’m fine with the Republicans as long as we’re talking about fiscal responsibility. Where I got off the reservation is when you talk about social issues.”
As November nears, you can expect Democrats to sharpen the focus on social issues. The surprising final primaries of 2010 remind us that the parties, the politicians and the country’s direction all depend on ordinary citizens who vote.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.