Republicans across the country are riding a wave of tea party passion, but Tuesday's election results brought home just how unpredictable and out of control that ride may be.
Just as they did when they drove out Charlie Crist in Florida and Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania and defeated incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah, Republican voters scorned the GOP establishment in Delaware's U.S. Senate primary and picked a tea party darling as their nominee.
Christine O'Donnell's stunning upset over moderate, nine-term congressman Mike Castle highlighted the tremendous energy on the right — and the serious risks facing the GOP as tea party conservatives gain more influence in the party.
"The Republican Party is in danger of burning down the big tent,'' said John Avlon, a former Rudy Giuliani speech writer and author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. "Liberal Republicans went extinct a long time ago. Now centrist Republicans — even in regions where they're the only Republicans who can get elected — are getting kicked out in these closed Republican primaries."
Insurgent conservative candidates — from Marco Rubio in Florida to Rand Paul in Kentucky — have bumped off establishment-backed candidates all over the country. In most cases, Republicans are still well-positioned to win those seats.
But O'Donnell, a social conservative pundit known for touting abstinence and criticizing masturbation, has little chance of winning, most analysts say. Castle looked like a lock and a victory would have sent a stunning message to Democrats because the seat had been held by Vice President Joe Biden.
Castle was essential to the GOP's quest to regain the majority in the Senate, a distant but not impossible job requiring the pickup of 10 seats. In the House, Republicans need to capture 39 seats and appear within striking range.
Both goals were made possible by a poor economy and the traditional inclination of voters to side against the party in the White House. But tea party energy cannot be overlooked as a cause of the impending Republican wave. It is a major reason why polls consistently show Republicans more likely to vote than Democrats.
At the same time, that intensity is also responsible for nominating the Sarah Palin-backed O'Donnell. In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid looked virtually doomed — until voters nominated tea party favorite Sharron Angle, who is in a tight race with Reid.
Republicans are poised to make big gains in November regardless of how many times congressional leaders have anointed candidates rejected by the grass roots.
But if Palin and Rush Limbaugh become perceived as the real leaders of the GOP heading into 2012, President Barack Obama will be thankful. They are polarizing figures who would have trouble building the broad coalition Republicans would need to win a national election.
Already, the success of harder conservative candidates is giving some hope to weary Democrats.
"With last night's nomination of Sarah Palin's favorite candidate, Christine O'Donnell, in Delaware, one thing has become perfectly clear: the Far Right is trying to take over the country one congressional seat at a time,'' U.S. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach, said in a fundraising e-mail Wednesday.
Crist also cited the results as bolstering his rationale for running as an independent, nonpartisan candidate.
"We've seen some elections across the country — another one yesterday — where you have a certain element of the Republican Party that's been hijacked. It happened here in Florida. It happened in Delaware,'' Crist said while in Miami. "I'm trying to give the people a choice on the ballot so they can make that decision for themselves, instead of the party bosses giving us two choices that we're stuck with.''
He called Rubio a "hard-right" candidate too conservative for Florida, and Kendrick Meek a "hard-left" candidate.
But the same day Crist suggested Rubio was out of step with Florida, Reuters released an Ipsos Public Affairs poll showing Rubio winning 40 percent support of likely Florida voters, compared to 26 percent for Crist, and 21 percent for Meek. It's the fourth recent poll showing Rubio with a double-digit lead.
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, an early Rubio backer who also endorsed O'Donnell in Delaware, scoffed at suggestions that the tea party movement was hurting GOP chances.
"The GOP would not have a chance to take the majority in the House or the Senate if it weren't for the tea party. To think that we could be where we are if we had Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist leading our ticket is just foolishness,'' DeMint said, arguing that winning the majority should not be the top priority anyway.
"It's more important that we look at this as a rebuilding year for the Republican Party," he said. "I still think we have the possibility of majority, but that's a huge expectation. The key now is to get some people up here who are going to speak to the American people and I think that's going to change the Republican Party and our image."
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, who encouraged then-Republican Crist to run for Senate, said the party will unite behind O'Donnell and downplayed talk that the GOP no longer can take the Senate.
"I know conventional wisdom is that (Delaware) is harder to win now but we'll see. What we're seeing this year is an intensity of the grass roots level like we haven't seen in a long time, people are engaging like they never have before and the issues that they're engaging on are issues that actually work really well for our candidates," Thune said. "We'll proceed. You play the hand you're dealt."
More and more, it's the tea party dealing the cards.
Miami Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at [email protected]