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Tea Party’s Triumph Makes Competence Quaint: Margaret Carlson

It’s one thing for a political movement to nominate someone unconventional. It’s quite another to elect someone whom senior Republicans called “delusional,” a bit “nutty” and unelectable even as “dog catcher.”

So hats off and raise a glass to the Tea Party. They really strutted their stuff yesterday in Delaware, nominating Christine O’Donnell, a 41-year-old marketing consultant, for U.S. Senate over Mike Castle, a moderate Republican congressman and former governor. Her victory puts to rest the old saw that you can’t beat somebody with nobody.

The Tea Party swept to victory someone who may have paid rent out of campaign contributions, is vocally against masturbation, had staff check cars and bushes to see if she was being followed and suffers from what Karl Rove politely called a “checkered background.”

She did not, in fact, graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1993, but just this month. She claimed gender discrimination that caused her “mental anguish” in a lawsuit against a former employer, a conservative non-profit, and sought $6.95 million in damages before dropping the case. Her only visible means of support is less than $6,000 she earned last year as a marketing consultant.

The most foolish of her whoppers occurred on a live radio show with a sympathetic host who wouldn’t abide her claim that, as the Republican Senate nominee in 2008, she defeated incumbent Democrat Joe Biden in two Delaware counties. When she countered, like 6-year-old caught in the cookie jar, that she’d only said she’d tied him, the conservative host played the tape that proved her wrong. And she didn’t even tie him. Delaware has three counties, and Biden beat her in each one.

New York Stunner

O’Donnell wasn’t the only stunner last night.

Carl Paladino, a Buffalo millionaire, shocked New York’s Republican establishment with a huge win over Rick Lazio, the former congressman famous for invading Hillary Clinton’s debate space in 2000. Labeled a “wackadoo” by a columnist for the New York Daily News, Paladino, among other wackadoo ideas, proposed turning prisons into homeless shelters for welfare recipients. He was caught forwarding racist and sexist jokes by e-mail.

The question now is what the Republican Party will do. And that depends on which party you’re talking about.

On one side is the party of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and most of all Sarah Palin, seemingly O’Donnell’s long-lost twin, who weighed in with a last-minute endorsement from her Facebook campaign headquarters and via a robocall.

DeMint on Roll

And don’t forget about Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. O’Donnell’s win solidified DeMint as the king- and queen-maker of this year’s primaries, taking on and beating his own leaders.

On the other side is the party of George Bush I and II, of Ronald Reagan, of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and the Democrats’ new punching bag, House Republican Leader John Boehner, and of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which lost an amazing eight primaries this year. Rove seemed to speak for that faction after O’Donnell’s victory, saying conservatives shouldn’t cheer the nomination of candidates who “do not evince the characteristics of rectitude and sincerity and character.”

But even principled stands against members of your own party can carry risks. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” yesterday, Pat Buchanan recalled that Nelson Rockefeller refused to wear a Barry Goldwater button in 1964, while Richard Nixon campaigned for Goldwater in 40 states. Four years later it was Nixon who became president.

Impact on 2012

Unlike the Christian Right before it, the Tea Party movement doesn’t figure to shimmy its way closer to the Republican establishment. Any romancing will have to be done by the establishment. So watch to see if potential 2012 presidential candidates -- other than Palin, of course -- show up, or don’t, to campaign for O’Donnell. Will DeMint and the Tea Partiers punish those who stay away?

Doing the happy dance today are Democrats, although surely they have to be careful what they wish for.

With O’Donnell on the ticket in Delaware and Paladino in New York, Democrats should have no trouble labeling the entire crop of Republican candidates “extremist.” That word is already being fired by Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of the victims of the Tea Party primary revolt.

Barring a miracle, O’Donnell ruins Republicans’ chances of taking over the Senate after the Nov. 2 election. She’s the most outside of the outsiders running.

Angle and Paul

Sharron Angle in Nevada, after all, doesn’t owe back taxes and hasn’t defaulted on her mortgage, as Castle pointed out about O’Donnell in the first negative ad he ever ran. Angle only wants to welcome nuclear waste to the state and abolish departments of our government that oversaw the oil cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico.

O’Donnell likewise outdoes Rand Paul, who merely wonders whether civil-rights laws went too far.

Unlike Angle and Paul, O’Donnell offered few positions in her primary, outside of a general worry about high taxes and high debt and requisite vows to protect the twin sanctities of life and gun ownership.

In most election years the lack of experience or competence is a negative. It seems to be catnip for many voters in this unusual election of 2010.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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