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'Tea party' candidates win GOP contests in Delaware, New York

In New Hampshire, an establishment-backed Republican appears to be fending off a challenge from the right.

September 15, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau

The insurgent "tea party" movement vanquished the Republican Party establishment Tuesday as an underdog candidate for U.S. Senate in Delaware won a primary that had become a national proxy war for the heart of the GOP.

Conservative activist Christine O'Donnell, a perennial candidate with no experience in elective office, defeated longtime Rep. Michael N. Castle — a dramatic finale to a primary season dominated by the small-government movement's revolt against moderate elements of the GOP.

"Don't ever underestimate the power of we the people," O'Donnell, 41, told a group of jubilant supporters Tuesday night. "We the people will have our voice heard in Washington, D.C., once again."

A tea party candidate also scored an upset in New York. Carl Paladino, a millionaire developer, took the GOP nomination for governor, trouncing former Rep. Rick Lazio. He'll face state Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic nominee.

"If we've learned anything tonight, it's that New Yorkers are as mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore," said Paladino, 64, invoking the famous line from the movie "Network." He added: "All Andrew offers us is status Cuomo."

O'Donnell's victory in Delaware also could represent a setback in Republicans' quest to take control of the Senate. Castle, the longest-serving congressman in state history, had been considered a shoo-in for the seat formerly held by Vice President Joe Biden. But O'Donnell is likely to have a harder time winning over independent and moderate voters in her race against the Democrat, New Castle County Executive Christopher Coons. Even some Republicans seemed averse to supporting her.

"You have a very inexperienced candidate in O'Donnell who has flaws that are even being pointed out by Republicans, against Chris Coons, who is a very good candidate," said Nathan Gonzales, an analyst for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. Gonzales called the result "a game-changer."

O'Donnell's surge was fueled by the activists of the tea party movement and funded, in part, by the Tea Party Express, a Sacramento political action committee. She had the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, as well as conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

The conflict between tea party activists and the political establishment has defined the primary season, which began to wrap up Tuesday with contests in seven states and the District of Columbia. Hawaii holds its primary Saturday.

In New Hampshire, another establishment candidate struggled to fend off a challenge from the right. As vote counting went late into the night, Ovide Lamontagne, a lawyer with support from the state's traditional conservative base, narrowly trailed former state Atty. Gen. Kelly Ayotte in the contest for the GOP Senate nomination.

But the anti-establishment fervor did not appear to extend to Democratic voters. In New York, embattled Rep. Charles B. Rangel won the chance to return to the House, where the 20-term congressman is facing ethics charges. For the first time in years, Rangel had faced a tough field of challengers, including a son of the man he beat 40 years ago. But with 70% of the vote counted, he held 52%.

The tea party movement had already claimed two Republican incumbents in the Senate and two in the House. In several other races, candidates favored by party insiders were beaten by outsiders who said they were more conservative.

The dynamic has left the GOP in a state of upheaval, even as polling shows the party headed toward strong gains in Congress in November.

In Delaware, state Republicans worked openly against O'Donnell's candidacy. They eagerly pointed to reports of her personal financial struggles, allegations that she had used campaign funds to pay her rent, and the fact that she didn't secure an undergraduate degree until this month.

The GOP race grew so heated in recent days that the Delaware Republican Party chairman, Tom Ross, received an e-mailed death threat over the state party's open support for Castle. "You deserve a bullet in the head," the e-mail read, according to party officials, who said the incident was under investigation.

Castle conceded Tuesday night in Wilmington.

O'Donnell acknowledged the uphill road ahead.

"A lot of people have already said that we can't win the general election," she told supporters. "It will be hard work, but we can win — and if those same people who fought against me work just as hard for me, we will win."

However, it is unlikely she will get support from the national party. In a blunt signal of its lack of enthusiasm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a one-sentence statement congratulating O'Donnell on "a hard-fought primary campaign."

The Tea Party Express, which spent hundreds of thousands on O'Donnell's behalf, defended its involvement.

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