The Delaware Senate race may not be close in the polls, but people in Delaware are nervous. Despite an apparent 15 point lead for the Democrat, Chris Coons, the palpable anger on the streets of the long-time patrician state of the Dupont family leads many to believe that the outcome of the race remains uncertain.
Delaware is a small state of less than one million people. With the industrial north and rural, agricultural south, it has its own political culture and history. While viewed by many as a Democrat, blue state, its statewide office-holders have flipped from D to R with regularity. And its politics have always had a certain genteel character—with each Election Day followed by Return Day, a public festival of reconciliation culminated by a parade honoring the winners and losers together.
But this year emotions are running high, as they are nationally. At the most recent debate, Republican Christine O’Donnell quizzed Chris Coons on the Constitutional basis of the separation of church and state. The Constitution has carried iconic status among right wing insurgencies over the years—though their affection has tended to focus on a few amendments of choice while ignoring those that less suit their purposes—and O’Donnell was quick to expand her query to whether there was any federal authority that should rightfully bind the choices of a free people. Perhaps unwittingly, her stance in defense of radical federalism recalled Delaware’s history as among the last states to abolish slavery, almost a full decade after the Emancipation Proclamation.
But despite being ridiculed in the national media for her apparent ignorance of the First Amendment, O’Donnell seemed quite pleased with her performance. Indeed, she appeared nothing short of gleeful during the exchange, as she egged Coons on, goading the Yalie into a brief discourse on the Establishment Clause.
In her view, O’Donnell won the moment—evidenced by her joy and the hoots from her supporters—as she had succeeded in stripping the veneer off of the generally unflappable Coons, exposing his essence as a high-brow elitist. You could almost read her thoughts: You see! Listen to him! Thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, and that he can shame me with that little lecture on the Constitution. But he just doesn’t get it—this race is not about how smart he is; it is about deep and undying anger of Main Street Americans at all of those who for so long have pulled the levers of power, and seen fit to tell the rest of us how much smarter they are than we are.
O’Donnell got this far by bringing down the old school patrician Republican Mike Castle, who in her mind was not one whit better than Coons. Yet many still refuse to take her seriously and suggest that her goal is simply to garner the national stage for a bit and perhaps land a reality show on Fox. But the fact that her numbers remain north of 40% even after her First Amendment performance speaks to the depth of the anger and resentment Delawareans feel toward Washington, D.C., and support her belief that with strong turnout on Election Day she can ride that wave to public office.
O’Donnell’s rhetoric of resentment toward elites has been central to the Republican Party narrative for decades. In prior incarnations, the Party leveraged those resentments to build its base—from Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the Reagan Democrats and Pat Buchanan Peasants with Pitchforks to Lee Atwater and Karl Rove’s success in co-opting the evangelical Christian community.
But this time, the Republican Party apparatchiks have lost control of the narrative, and Tea Party leaders have wasted no words in asserting their willingness to tear the party apart if it does not follow their lead. They understand all too well that the anti-Washington movements of the past foundered quickly, and saw their leaders compromised and their energies dissipated as the rise of federal power and spending continued unabated.
The irony, of course, is that the Tea Party is a movement without any internally consistent principles. The anti-tax core of the message loses its coherence when combined with the parallel anger over deficit spending. And for all the rhetoric about deficits and healthcare reform, no serious Republican candidate who has embraced the Tea Party talking points believes that deficits were the cause of the housing bubble and ensuing collapse or that our continuing economic problems will be cured by eliminating deficits or repealing healthcare reform.
Instead, rage against the machine is the underlying theme. Christine O’Donnell is not running for office because she believes that she has a better idea about how to fix the economy, or anything else for that matter. Hers is a platform of platitudes and resentments against all those smartest-kids-in-the-class who have been running things all these years and treating the rest of the country like second-class citizens. And she hopes there are enough Delawareans who share her disdain and anger.
But while O’Donnell is unlikely to win on November 2nd, the Republican Party and House Speaker-in-Waiting John Boehner are in for a rough ride. After 40 years of service as the tip of the Republican spear on Election Day, this crowd of angry, resentful Main Street Americans may not be willing to fade away as they have in the past, as the election fades and Washington returns to business as usual. This time, the Republican Party may have to make good on its promises, and John Boehner et al will be hard pressed to construct a legislative agenda and budget that delivers on the disparate slogans they have endorsed and promises they have made.
But it sure will be interesting to watch.