The economy, the whirlwind and the GOP irony

WASHINGTON - The end of the primary season arrived Tuesday amid growing signs a grass-roots rebellion among conservative tea party activists may jeopardize Republican prospects for large-scale, recession-fueled gains from the Democrats. 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 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 judging from the voter comments I've heard, the psychological damage from this one has been 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 Barack Obama. Democrats may claim they have halted the downturn and begun to reverse it, but when you talk to voters - and local officials - few see reasons for confidence.

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. 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 improving the economy.

Because the GOP image remains so weak nationally, 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.

On the other hand, this year's primaries have given Republicans candidates for governor capable of winning in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Oregon and especially California, to add to Texas, Georgia and perhaps Florida, which they already hold. This could enhance beyond measure the reputation of the GOP as a governing party.

Democrats can still affect the outcome, but under the spell of Obama, they have lost the opportunity to debate big issues among themselves. Their next chance will come after Nov. 2, when the Obama administration reconstitutes itself.

(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group