- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2010

As the electoral fog lifted after this week’s primaries, the Republican Party on Wednesday began the awkward task of reaching out to “tea party”-backed winners they previously shunned.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee enthusiastically endorsed Christine O’Donnell’s long-shot bid for the Senate, one day after the tea party favorite defeated party establishment candidate Rep. Michael N. Castle in Delaware’s GOP primary.

In New Hampshire, state officials certified former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte as winner of the Republican Senate nomination, defeating tea-party-backed conservative Ovide Lamontagne.

The NRSC, the fundraising arm of Senate Republicans, previously had a terse relationship with the “outsider” Ms. O’Donnell in recent months and worked hard to elect Mr. Castle, who had a double-digit polling lead in matchups with the Democratic candidate.

But after Ms. O’Donnell’s surprise 6-percentage-point victory over Mr. Castle in Tuesday’s primary, the committee quickly switched gears and said it fully supports the 41-year-old conservative, giving her campaign the maximum allowable donation of $42,000.

“We remain committed to holding Democrat nominee New Castle County Executive Chris Coons accountable this November, as we inform voters about his record of driving his county to the brink of bankruptcy and supporting his party’s reckless spending policies in Washington,” said NRSC Chairman Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

Mr. Coons leads Ms. O’Donnell by double digits in the most recent one-on-one polls, forcing prognosticators to move the winner from the likely Republican column to likely Democrat. Republicans need 10 seats to gain a Senate majority, and unless the playing field changes dramatically they’ll have to win five of six races that are considered tossups. All six are currently held by Democrats.

“This is not a race we’re going to be able to win,” said Karl Rove, who was the principal political adviser in the administration of President George W. Bush and is now one of the leaders of a multimillion-dollar independent organization trying to fashion GOP majorities in Congress.

Democrats and the White House said the O’Donnell victory represented a party in turmoil.

“Last night showed that there is a very vociferous debate going on inside the Republican Party for the hearts and minds of Republican voters,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Mr. Gibbs said Republican squabbling will help Democrats stay competitive in races like the Delaware Senate contest, which Democrats had all but ceded to Mr. Castle until Ms. O’Donnell’s surge in recent weeks.

“There is no doubt, and I don’t think anybody would disagree, that intraparty Republican anger has changed the complexion of a number of races at a state and a district level,” he said. “And that has real-world, practical implications for the outcome of what happens in November.”

Seven weeks before Election Day, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday that “turnout and enthusiasm are off the charts” across the nation and would benefit a resurgent GOP on Nov. 2.

Republicans must pick up 40 seats to win control of the House, and even prominent GOP strategists said Ms. O’Donnell’s victory would complicate their chances.

In a celebratory round of interviews, Ms. O’Donnell was having none of it.

“There are a lot of people who are rallying behind me who are frustrated that the Republican Party has lost its way,” she said. A primary winner on the strength of support from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and tea party activists, she now enters the fall campaign against Democrat Mr. Coons.

Mr. Cornyn’s ringing endorsement of her was in glaring contrast to the NRSC’s conspicuously brief and lukewarm congratulations moments after she was declared the winner late Tuesday.

“We congratulate Christine O’Donnell for her nomination this evening after a hard-fought primary campaign in Delaware,” said NRSC Executive Director Rob Jesmer.

Ms. O’Donnell and party regulars had clashed during the primary campaign.

O’Donnell supporters had suggested that Mr. Castle, 71, is so frail that he might die before finishing his Senate term and floated rumors that he was gay. The incumbent and state GOP responded with ads accusing Ms. O’Donnell of lying about her education and leaving a trail of unpaid bills.

Mr. Castle, the veteran Republican, said through a spokeswoman that he does not intend to support Ms. O’Donnell in the general election.

In New Hampshire, tea party ally Mr. Lamontagne on Wednesday conceded the Republican Senate primary to Mrs. Ayotte. He congratulated the victor and said he was disappointed but humbly accepted the result.

Mrs. Ayotte beat Mr. Lamontagne by only 1,667 votes, according to official results.

He had the option of asking for a recount because his loss margin was within 1.5 percent of the total votes cast.

While Mr. Lamontagne courted the tea party vote, Mrs. Ayotte was considered the candidate of the Republican Party establishment. She also has the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who called her the “true conservative” in the primary.

Unlike the O’Donnell-Castle maelstrom, the New Hampshire GOP Senate contest generally was civil.

In a Wednesday afternoon “victory speech,” Mrs. Ayotte called Mr. Lamontagne a “principled conservative” and a “gentleman.”

“I have great respect for him and the race he ran,” said Mrs. Ayotte, who added that Mr. Lamontagne has offered to support her campaign. “Please note that we will be united in November to defeat [Democratic nominee] Paul Hodes.”

Mr. Hodes, a two-term U.S. House member, called Mrs. Ayotte “an extreme-right-wing candidate out of step with mainstream New Hampshire voters.”

In one-on-one polls before Tuesday, Mrs. Ayotte held a 4 percentage point lead over Mr. Hodes. It is considered a likely Republican seat.

In other key primaries Tuesday, scandal-tarred Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, easily survived a primary challenge by four would-be officeholders for his Harlem district. The lawmaker won 50.5 percent of the vote - more than double his nearest challenger, Adam Clayton Powell IV, a state assemblyman whose father Mr. Rangel unseated 40 years ago.

Mr. Rangel was forced to give up his post as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee earlier this year amid an ongoing ethics probe.

In Wisconsin’s Republican gubernatorial primary, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker beat former Rep. Mark Neumann 58.6 percent to 38.7 percent, setting up a general election showdown with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, on Nov. 2.

In Rhode Island, Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline easily beat three other Democratic primary candidates for the open House seat held by retiring Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, a Democrat. Mr. Cicilline will face Republican state Rep. John J. Loughlin II.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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