Primary Round-Up: A Tea Party Triumph (Or Two) Is a Win For Dems

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Updated, 7:25 a.m.

Tea Party activists on Tuesday punctuated a primary season with no shortage of surprises by delivering their sharpest blow yet to the Republican establishment. In the race for the party’s Senate nomination in Delaware—one of seven states (plus the nation’s capital) where voters headed to the polls in the last slate of primaries before Nov. 2—insurgent Christine O’Donnell rode the fervor of conservative activists to a come-from-behind victory over Mike Castle, a former two-term governor and nine-term Congressman who just weeks ago appeared to be cruising toward the party’s nomination and a likely victory in the general election. O’Donnell, a marketing consultant, controversial pundit and retread candidate, captured 53% of the vote. She will face New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, the Democratic nominee, in the race for Vice President Joe Biden’s old Senate seat, which is being vacated by placeholder Ted Kaufman.

In what could turn out to be a second major upset, the Republican Senate primary race in New Hampshire, which pit Tea Party favorite Ovide Lamontagne against former state attorney general Kelly Ayotte, was too close to call Wednesday morning. Ayotte, widely viewed as a strong candidate in the moderate Granite State, saw a double-digit lead dwindle in the race’s waning stages, and leads Lamontagne by just under 1,000 votes with 85% of precincts reporting.

O’Donnell’s victory is a major coup for the Tea Party Express, a California-based political action committee that parachuted into the First State to crusade on her behalf and assail the voting record compiled by Castle, a moderate who seemed headed for a general-election cakewalk. “This election continues to demonstrate the growing strength of the tea party movement, which is Americans concerned about the growing intrusiveness of the federal government with the accompanying higher taxes and spending that have led to a skyrocketing federal debt,” Sal Russo, head of the Tea Party Express, said in a statement tonight to TIME’s Michael Scherer. “The political class should realize the American people want it to stop and are willing to get involved in the political process to change the politicians who keep digging this hole deeper.” In addition to reinforcing the Tea Party’s clout, the Delaware upset is also a testament to the strength of conservative kingmakers Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint, both of whom endorsed O’Donnell late in a fractious campaign, and it cemented the clout of the grassroots conservatives who have yoked the Republican Party to the right in an unpredictable election cycle.

But for Republicans O’Donnell’s victory comes at a cost. It exposed—yet again—a deep rift within the party, one that pits Tea Party activists eager to jettison the GOP’s few remaining moderates against the pragmatic party bosses who think Senate candidates like Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Nevada’s Sharron Angle and Delaware’s O’Donnell are shakier candidates. In O’Donnell’s case, the Delaware GOP declared her flat-out unelectable, not just in the race for Vice President Joe Biden’s former seat but in a campaign “for dog catcher”; a former campaign manager accused her in an election-eve robocall of being a conservative poseur who lives off campaign contributions; and even the Tea Party-friendly organization FreedomWorks—whose president defines the movement’s goal as a “hostile takeover” of the GOP—declined to jump into the race due to doubts over O’Donnell’s viability. O’Donnell’s spotty personal finances and staunch social conservative views—including opposition to pre-marital sex and masturbation—make her path to victory in moderate Delaware a far steeper one than Castle would have faced. (For his part, Castle could consider a write-in bid.) The upshot: Democrats are suddenly on firmer footing in Delaware, as a seat that seemed to be slipping away is again within its grasp. Prognosticators consider the Delaware seat a linchpin in the GOP’s attempt to stitch together a Senate majority.

Those battles have so far largely overshadowed a slew of interesting races in New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Wisconsin and Rhode Island. In the Empire State, beleaguered Rep. Charlie Rangel seems poised to parry a primary challenge from state assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV and retain control of the 15th Congressional district. Embroiled in an ethics investigation, the octogenarian will likely sidestep a defeat that would be a sort of karmic bookend to his long career. (Rangel vaulted to the House 40 years ago by unseating Powell’s father, who was then himself facing questions about his conduct.) The Harlem lion leads, 57%-24%, with 47% of precincts reporting. In the race for the GOP gubernatorial nod, conservative challenger Carl Paladino cashiered former Congressman Rick Lazio, the party favorite,  despite an execrable campaign that has spooked Party leaders. Analysts called the race for Paladino, a Buffalo businessman and political neophyte, with the insurgent leading, 65%-35%, with 55% of precincts reporting. He is not expected to pose a serious threat to Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo.

In a race that will reverberate beyond the nation’s capital,  city council member Vince Gray ousted Adrian Fenty in Washington, D.C.,’s Democratic mayoral primary. Despite the success the city has enjoyed during his tenure, Fenty was been hampered by what detractors call an abrasive management style and the perception that he turned his back on the city’s black constituency. A Fenty loss will reshape the debate over education reform; Michelle Rhee–whose controversial, pioneering stewardship of D.C.’s public schools has spurred a resurgence–has tethered her fate to Fenty’s, and is likely to leave. (Asked Tuesday whether Rhee could stay if he won the mayor’s office, Gray responded, “We’ll see.”) With 90% of precincts reporting, Gray held a 53%-46% edge. He is expected to coast to victory in the general election given D.C.’s heavy Democratic tilt.

In Maryland, former Gov. Bob Ehlrich easily thwarted a challenge by businessmen Brian Murphy, one of Sarah Palin’s more mystifying endorsements. Ehrlich, who ran on a platform that emphasized job creation and tax cuts, won 76% of the vote. He’ll get a rematch with Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, who edged Ehrlich in a tight race in 2006.

But the story of the night is O’Donnell’s victory, which is sure to touch off a fresh flood of stories about the dangers of incumbency amid a jobless recovery and rampant distrust of politicians in both parties. With a few notable exceptions, incumbents have been wildly successful this year, as they are in every cycle. A more nuanced assessment of the Tea Party clout–one which Scherer’s Delaware walk-up in the dead-tree magazine explores–is that they’ve been able to spring upset in states where they need only to motivate a small cadre of conservatives. Those include Delaware, where O’Donnell was declared the victor with just 30,000 votes; the Republican stronghold of Alaska, where Joe Miller bounced Sen. Lisa Murkowski; and deep-red Utah, where Sen. Bob Bennett’s loss to Mike Lee can be chalked up in large part to the parameters of the state’s nominating convention. That’s not to take anything away from the Tea Party movement, which proved again tonight that it can be an electoral force. This time, though, their win hands an ailing Democratic party a lifeline.