The cheers that went up in Washington as Republican primary votes were totaled September 14 did not come from GOP headquarters. As former Bush administration spokeswoman Dana Perino acknowledged, Democrats had reason to be "gleeful." Candidates GOP strategists had recruited for Delaware’s open Senate seat and New York’s governorship were upset by Tea Party extremists with heavy baggage. Karl Rove says the Delaware results did severe—perhaps irreparable—damage to GOP prospects for taking the Senate this fall. But before progressives breathe sighs of relief, they had better recognize that, although Tea Party victories have made it harder for Republicans to win some key races, they do not guarantee overall positive results for Democrats on November 2.
It’s probably true, as the Delaware Republican Party chair says, that Christine O’Donnell, the Palin-backed perennial candidate who upset moderate Mike Castle, is too scandal-plagued and ideologically "out there" to win. But Tea Party–tied Senate candidates who elbowed aside seemingly more electable Republicans in Florida, Kentucky, Colorado, Connecticut, Alaska, Wisconsin and other states have much better chances. Many of them have substantial war chests and are tacking to the center. At the same time, polls suggest that Democrats continue to experience an enthusiasm gap (see "Think, Prey, Vote," by John Nichols).
What to do? There’s an argument to be made for a smart nationalization of the Congressional races, with an eye toward forcing all GOP candidates to answer for extreme elements of the Tea Party agenda, which include eliminating or at least slashing Social Security and Medicare, handing the election of senators back to state legislatures, giving states far more say over civil rights and rewriting the Constitution so that children born to immigrants are not afforded citizenship. The ugly truth is that some of these stances are popular in some places, but taken as a whole, the Tea Party program is an extremist one. Highlighting it and demanding responses from Republicans could create tensions in their ranks that benefit Democrats. Forcing a GOP Senate prospect like Connecticut’s Linda McMahon or a gubernatorial candidate like New York’s Carl Paladino to respond to the Tea Party creates a "damned if they do, damned if they don’t" dynamic in which an embrace of extreme stances scares off moderate Republicans and independents, while a distancing from those stances offends the faithful.
But scare tactics aren’t going to be enough nationally or in many of the most competitive races. Progressives who are frightened by the prospect of a Tea Party–defined GOP holding the balance of power may forget their frustrations with the Obama administration and rush to the polls. However, the broader base of casual Democrats and independents, whose votes elected Obama and produced overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress, are deeply worried about high unemployment and retirement. A populist message that emphasizes job creation and protection of Social Security, along with tax cuts for the working and middle class instead of the wealthiest, would do a lot to answer those concerns, as would a tough stance against the depredations of Wall Street (President Obama could give a powerful signal on that front by appointing Elizabeth Warren as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). Such a campaign, combined with an explanation of the economic threats posed by a hard turn to the right, could yet provide Democrats with the numbers they need to keep a lid on the teapot.