Will Democrats really benefit from the Tea Party victories?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 15 2010 7:44 PM

A Little Good News or a Lot?

Will Democrats really benefit from the Tea Party victories?

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The day after the wacky primary season ended, the Democratic National Committee unveiled a new logo: a D surrounded by a circle. (Does this train take me to Flatbush?) Democrats also spent the day working on a new symbol for the Republican Party: the Mad Hatter. With the election of Tea Party favorite Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Democrats now believe they have a body of evidence—eight Senate races in which Tea Party candidates won the Republican nomination—that allows them to argue that the Republican Party has gone nuts.

Democrats were already bringing GOP bogeymen to each rally, but Tuesday's results allow them to pump a little more air into the image. The success of Tea Party-backed candidates also allows them to feel good about something when so much of the news lately has been bad. Still, the question must be asked: How much will this internal Republican fight actually help Democrats?

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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O'Donnell's victory turns what looked like a safe Republican pickup into a seat Democrats are likely to now hold on to. Democrats also hope the sum of the Tea Party victories pays off more generally with two voter blocs: The first is independent voters who tend to turn out less than in presidential years. They decide late and tend to not like extremism. In a just-released CBS poll, 33 percent of independents are still undecided.

Independent voters have a dim view of the Tea Party. In the poll, 31 percent viewed the movement negatively and only 18 percent viewed it positively. Some 26 percent of independents say they are less likely to vote for a candidate affiliated with the Tea Party, and only 12 percent say they are more so.

Independent voters tend to not like risky characters with brash ideas, which is why Democrats are using terms like "extremist" and "scary" and highlighting ideas like privatizing Social Security. The trick here for Democrats is to transfer bad feelings voters may have about the Tea Party and its candidates to the entire GOP. They may be helped by a GOP leadership worried about angering its most active, organized constituents. The Republican Senatorial Committee at first told reporters they were not going to support O'Donnell—but then Sen. John Cornyn, the chairman of that committee, issued an endorsement. (So did RNC Chairman Michael Steele and likely presidential candidate Mitt Romney.)

The second group of voters Democrats are hoping to excite are their base voters and first-time Obama voters. The specter of a GOP-controlled Congress was already a central theme of this campaign year, but now the idea of a Tea Party-dominated Republican Party just got scarier. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sent out a fundraising letter the morning after the O'Donnell win: "Help us turn back the Tea Party tide! Your immediate donation of $5 will help fight O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, Rand Paul and the rest of these radical candidates. President Obama's agenda depends on keeping our Senate majority."

The Democratic base isn't the only group of core supporters that gets excited. As an anti-establishment figure, O'Donnell is benefiting from a flood of new cash. (Democrats also claim an increase in donations to her opponent.) Could the bashing backfire? Possibly, say Democratic strategists. But Tea Party activists are already energized, so there's little risk in doing things that might make them more angry

The other benefit of the Tea Party victories for Democrats is psychic. The White House and Democrats now hope that the Republican Party will be lured into the daily cycle of distractions they've been experiencing. The Dems can now enjoy reading stories of disappointed supporters, a party in disarray, and internal sniping. Sarah Palin fulfilled Democrats' dreams when she treated Karl Rove like he was in diapers. Rove had criticized Palin-backed O'Donnell. "Well, bless [Karl Rove's] heart," she said on Fox. "We love our friends there in the machine, these expert politicos ... who say the GOP nominee is not electable or that they're not going to even try. Well, I say, 'Buck up. Buck up.' Competition is really good."

Speaking of Palin: Her profile, if not influence, rises with the success of the Tea Party—and Democrats see that as another glimmer of hope. She has been a smashing success in support of the Tea Party, but now she and the Tea Party have to come out of the clubhouse and face voters in the general election. Palin has not gotten more popular among voters the more they've seen her. In the CBS poll, her favorability rating among all voters was 21 percent; 43 percent of voters view her unfavorably. Among Tea Party voters, Palin's endorsement would make them 36 percent more likely to vote for a candidate and only 12 percent less likely to do so. In the general public, those numbers essentially flip (12 percent and 37 percent, respectively).

Now that the primaries are over, Democrats may have their best opportunity to define this election as a choice between two philosophies. That the Republican ranks are now populated by creative, colorful Tea Party characters helps bring the differences into higher relief than would otherwise have been the case with establishment candidates. But this may all still be a side show in anxious economic times. If voters want to punish the party in power for the slow pace of the recovery, all of these hopeful new strategies may be about as effective as changing a logo.

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