Christine O'Donnell has weathered political strife, media mockery and IRS scrutiny with a resolute smile and a tactical agenda. And she's not done yet.
Fresh from an academic speaking engagement at Oxford University, poised to write a regular column and provide broadcast content for The Washington Times, and eager to defend herself in a potentially complex tax investigation, the onetime Republican Senate candidate has learned much and is eager to re-engage in the national political debate.
Ms. O'Donnell said in an interview that she is convinced the tea party is alive, well and vital to the nation's future. She also believes Republican factions can settle their differences and prevail in upcoming elections.
"The real question is this: Will they unify? That remains to be seen. In our party, there's a battle between power and principles," she said. "The party needs to seriously consider its purpose and goals for 2014 and 2016. Is the goal simply to have more R's than D's in Congress? Or is the goal to have more R's that actually stand for something?"
She sees herself on the cusp of reinvention after pulling off one of the biggest Republican primary upsets of the 2010 political cycle but losing badly to Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat, in the general election.
"Almost every time I have a public speaking engagement, the comment I hear the most is, 'You're nothing like I thought you'd be.' A few times I've responded with, 'What did you think I'd be like?' The response is usually an embarrassed, 'Well, you know ,'" Ms. O'Donnell said, with a pause.
She was celebrated: Ms. O'Donnell made the cover of Time and Newsweek during her Senate run four years ago, her third try for the office. But voters were also subjected to press coverage that often resembled caricature. Old videotape footage that surfaced suggested she practiced witchcraft, while liberal critics portrayed her as a fringe candidate. Some establishment Republicans blamed her for losing a Senate race that the party could have won with a more moderate candidate.
The watchdogs also showed up. Ms. O'Donnell later was accused of misusing campaign funds by the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which put her on a list of "crooked candidates."
As her campaign took off, Treasury Department officials announced that her personal tax information had been compromised, a situation that remains unresolved. She equates the improper disclosures with reports of Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative and tea party groups for special scrutiny in recent years. Ms. O'Donnell went the distance, however.
"I knew very well that the slanderous attacks against me were intended to shame me off the battlefield," she said.
Undaunted in the aftermath, Ms. O'Donnell formed her own political action committee, launched a legal defense fund and wrote a book titled "Troublemaker: Let's Do What It Takes to Make America Great Again." She stood at dozens of podiums, shook many hands, listened a lot, honed her skills.
Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said, "I don't know Ms. O'Donnell, and she has certainly been through the media wringer. Her notoriety offers her an opportunity many losing candidates don't have. If she has issues she wants to advance, using that celebrity is a good thing. Some people don't make good candidates, but they can succeed in other endeavors."
Another run for office is not out of the question, however. ChristinePac.com, her political action fund website, is active and current. Ms. O'Donnell has inaugurated voter education projects and has fundraising apparatus in place; she continues to lash out against the Obama administration. The thought of hitting the campaign trail continues to attract.
"I can't say never," Ms. O'Donnell said. "Usually whenever I say I'll never do something, I end up doing that very thing, almost immediately afterwards."
She has a haven, however. Ms. O'Donnell cited a happy history with the Conservative Political Action Conference, which gets underway Thursday near the nation's capital. She is convinced that the organization, marking its 50th anniversary, holds much promise for young people as well as for women.
"CPAC has been a turning point in my career on many occasions. Attending this conference as a student in the early 1990s, it was the driver that ultimately launched my career in politics and brought me to Washington just a year later," Ms. O'Donnell said. "CPAC served as the impetus in my 2010 U.S. Senate campaign. I had been building my campaign team, yet I was missing a few key players — but I met people who filled those roles. We gained the supporters and team members we needed to launch my campaign about a month later."
A signature independent streak, one that impressed voters and annoyed critics, remains.
"The biggest lesson I've learned is to listen to your gut even when it conflicts with expert advisers," she said, noting that she is careful to discern between gut instincts and a purely emotional response.
"My goals in the near future are broken down by project, starting with the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration investigation into the IRS computer glitch that placed an erroneous lien against me on the day I announced my U.S. Senate campaign. I'd like to see some of the people involved in my case be put under oath," Ms. O'Donnell said.
She said she is pleased with a new partnership with The Washington Times to write a column and to provide broadcast commentary for TV and radio platforms. Her real intent is to reach out to average Americans and explain the political arena, clarifying what conservatives and Republicans stand for, she said.
"If our message isn't resonating with voters, we don't abandon those principles. We reframe the message to reach the voters," Ms. O'Donnell said. "That is my goal with my new column and broadcast outreach."
She has experience explaining such things. During an appearance last month before an academic audience at the Oxford Union, the famed and august debating society within Oxford University, she parsed out America's liberty and founding ethics to a rapt British audience.
"We have strayed from our constitutional roots," she argued at Oxford. "The U.S. Constitution is no longer the litmus test by which we pass our laws, by which we spend our federal dollars. And this is causing the decline of America."
Ms. O'Donnell said she remains on a mission.
"During my campaign, what kept me going was the encouragement from everyday Americans who need an advocate in Washington. So many people have been shut out or forced out of the political process. I believe that everything I've gone through will be used to help change that," she said.
"It is my faith that there is a greater mission that sustains me. We all have a part to play in that mission, which is restoring the republic in America," she said.
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