Christine O'Donnell's Defeat a Lesson for Palin and the Tea Party

Christine O’Donnell believed until the bitter end of election night, November 2, 2010 that her candidacy would result in victory. Voters in Delaware, however, “refudiated” Sarah Palin’s protégé by electing Democrat Christopher Coons to the seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden. Coons defeated O’Donnell by 65 percent of the vote. Republican Mike Castle had led Coons by fifteen percent prior the September 14, 2010 primary election, but last minute support for O’Donnell via Tea Party cash and Palin’s endorsement gave her the primary victory.

How O’Donnell’s Loss May Affect the U.S. Senate Composition

The GOP needed ten seats to gain control of the upper chamber. Although final results in Alaska and Washington may not be known for several days, in Delaware, Mike Castle would most likely have claimed the senate seat for the Republicans. O’Donnell’s support from the Tea Party and Sarah Palin might have played a role in continued Democrat control of the Senate after the final ballots are counted in other states.

O’Donnell’s Witchcraft and Personal Crises Played a Part in the Election

Christine O’Donnell’s preoccupation with explaining away her 1999 witchcraft comments may have boosted the ratings of Saturday Night Live, but they only served to keep the non-issue in front of voters. Her television commercial, designed to portray a more benign O’Donnell, began with her statements, “I am not a witch, I’m you.” Both statements sent the wrong message.

Denying that she was a witch provided more comic relief than clarification. Attempting to be one of the everyday viewers also dredged up the other campaign innuendos and weaknesses: questions regarding her academic resume, questions about her income tax problems, and concerns that she had limited experience in politics and the working world. These were not the problems on the minds of Delaware voters or, for that matter, voters nationwide.

Sarah Palin’s Initial Advice to Avoid the Media

After O’Donnell cancelled appearances on national news talk shows like Face the Nation on September 18, 2010, heeding Palin’s advice to speak to Fox News, O’Donnell could have pulled off Palin’s successful strategy of “going rogue” had she ignored distractions like her 1999 witchcraft comments.

Additionally, had the O’Donnell campaign treated her to a “crash course” of basic civics, she would not have been caught off-guard having to explain her “separation of church and state" comments at the Widener Law School on October 19, 2010. During an earlier debate on October 13, 2010, she was stumped by a Supreme Court question despite moderator Wolf Blitzer’s attempt to steer her toward a safe answer.

Tea Party Success in Other National Senate Races

In Kentucky, Rand Paul beat Jack Conway with 53 percent of the vote while Republican Marco Rubio outran Independent Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek with 50 percent of the vote. The Florida race would have been much closer had Meek dropped out of the race, a rumor that made headlines days before the election. In New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte, another Palin endorsement, defeated Democrat Paul Hodes.

The Delaware Senate Race a Text for Future Tea Party Candidates

The exceptionally wide margin of victory for senator-elect Chris Coons in Delaware makes that campaign ripe for political dissection. Is it enough to be called a “commonsense conservative” who believes in creationism, is pro-life, and wants to take America back – whatever that phrase may ultimately mean? Or should voters expect substance from all candidates that campaign on returning integrity to the corridors of power in Washington.

Historically, short-term movements and political parties like the Free Soil Party and the Know-Nothings in the late 1840s and early 1850s were unsustainable because their leaders lacked substance and their message was limited. The same was true of the States’ Rights Party of the 1950s. If the Tea Party is to be taken seriously, mistakes like the Delaware debacle cannot be repeated. That is a lesson for Sarah Palin as well.