The end of the primary season arrived Tuesday amid growing signs that a grass roots rebellion among conservative tea party activists may jeopardize Republican prospects for large-scale, recession-fueled gains.
The stunning defeat of nine-term moderate Rep. Mike Castle, a former governor, by Christine O'Donnell, a previous loser with a troubled personal history who was endorsed by Sarah Palin and the tea party movement, in the Delaware Republican Senate primary probably dooms whatever chance the GOP had of capturing Vice President Joe Biden's Senate seat and with it, the Senate majority.
The low-turnout upset, coming after similar shocks in Alaska, Nevada, Kentucky and other states, suggests that the shrunken GOP is paying a price for its lack of coherent policy leadership at the national level. But it still may profit in November from the anger of an electorate fixated on the economy and the widespread uncertainty bred by its slow climb back from disaster.
This is the fourth election cycle scarred by a downturn in jobs, savings and profits since Ronald Reagan came to Washington in 1981, and the psychological damage from this one may be worse than any of its predecessors.
That is, in part, because it began under George W. Bush and has continued unabated, as far as voters can judge, under Obama.
Layoffs and lost income have decimated neighborhoods, and local governments have seen their revenues decline faster than Washington's.
A year ago, it was not clear which party would be more damaged by the fallout from the economic catastrophe. But now it is evident that somewhere along the way Obama and the Democrats lost control of the dialogue, and the populist protest has focused on big government, rather than big business.
Because the Democrats so visibly put their stamp on that government in 2006 and 2008, attracting vast attention with the elections of the first female speaker of the House and the first black president, they will take the brunt of the anti-Washington protests.
Thus, the biggest paradox of the 2010 campaign year — that Republicans are poised for major gains, even though their reputation as a party has not really recovered from the Bush years and there is no evidence that voters think they have developed better ideas than the Democrats have for the economy.
Because the GOP image remains so weak nationally under Michael Steele, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, states have been flirting all year with the danger that their primaries will produce candidates reflecting the internal dynamics of right-wing constituencies scary to the broader electorate.
That has happened already in the Colorado governor's race and the Nevada Senate contest against Majority Leader Harry Reid. And it happened again Tuesday in Delaware and in New York, where a tea party candidate for governor won.
It is likely to surface as a challenging dynamic when Republicans turn to the choice of a 2012 presidential nominee. With Sarah Palin helping foment rebellions within GOP ranks in states from Alaska and Utah to Florida and Delaware it may be harder than usual for the Republican establishment to anoint a front-runner from its own ranks.
However, this year's primaries have given Republicans candidates for governor capable of winning in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Oregon and California, to add to Texas, Georgia and perhaps Florida.
Democrats can still affect the outcome, but under the spell of Obama, they have, for now, lost the opportunity to debate big issues among themselves.