Christine O'Donnell's upset victory in Delaware's Republican Senate primary Tuesday against Rep. Mike Castle was the latest reminder that some of the GOP's roadblocks to victory in key Senate races this November could be their own candidates.
This year presents the best electoral climate since 1994 for the Republican Party to pick up seats in core Democratic strongholds. Of the 36 Senate seats in the 18 states that have voted Democratic in the past five presidential elections, Republicans hold just three.
But now, the GOP is benefitting from political winds that have presented opportunities to capture as many as seven of the seats in the Democratic Party's "blue wall" states: California, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Delaware, Illinois and Washington.
In all but Illinois and Washington, the party has elected more conservative candidates that appeal to the base but likewise present a tougher sell to these general electorates in centrist or liberal terrain.
In Delaware, O'Donnell's victory immediately moved the race's competitiveness from one that favored Republicans to a Democratic advantage. The Cook Political Report on Wednesday ruled out the possibility of an O'Donnell victory altogether, calling the Democratic-held seat "out of their reach."
It's a problem facing these Republican candidates in blue states: Are they too conservative to win?
In Wisconsin Tuesday, conservative businessman Ron Johnson handily won the Republican Senate nomination to face Sen. Russ Feingold.
A political newcomer and a tea party favorite, Johnson is an outspoken skeptic of global warming, recently characterizing theories that climate change is caused by human activity as "lunacy."
In California, former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina is challenging Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer on a platform that includes opposition to abortion rights and repeal of the ban on assault weapons. In Pennsylvania, former Republican Rep. Pat Toomey has advocated repeal of President Obama's healthcare overhaul. In Connecticut, Republicans passed over the more centrist candidate, former Rep. Rob Simmons, for former World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon, a fiscal conservative whose WWE past has brought personal baggage to the race.
While these candidates' platforms aren't unusual to conservative orthodoxy, they are running in states that tend to vote centrist to liberal and it could make for a difficult pitch to a broader swath of the electorate come November.
Underscoring the political tightrope they must walk in appeasing the base while appealing to moderates and independents: They are all running in states where Republican voters by nearly two-to-one margins self-identified as "conservative" versus "moderate" according to 2008 exit polling data.
The dynamic has provided some relief to Democrats, who are gripping for mass casualties on Election Day. "If they could have just found simple, empty-suit Republican candidates who wouldn't make a lot of mistakes, to me we'd be in a much worse place right now," said a Senate Democratic strategist, who added that more overtly ideological Republican candidates make it easier for Democrats to create a contrast in a general election battle.
However, running as a conservative in a blue state in 2010 might be an asset in this particular climate, according to a veteran Republican campaign strategist who noted that independent voters will be the decisive voting bloc and that the trends so far suggest they will break for the GOP.
Republicans have already scored two heavily touted statewide victories in Democratic strongholds with Sen. Scott Brown's win in Massachusetts' special election and Chris Christie's victory in the New Jersey gubernatorial race. Both victories were credited to a wave of support among unaffiliated voters. "We need to win independents overwhelmingly. What will dictate the election outcomes is how independents vote," the strategist said.
Further, a Senate Republican strategist countered that the proof is in the polling for Republican candidates in the "blue wall" states. "If these candidates are too conservative, then why are they leading or tying in the polls?" the strategist said.
Polling averages compiled by RealClearPolitics.com, for example, give Boxer a single-digit advantage over Fiorina in a state that Obama won by 24 points and last re-elected Boxer by a 20-point margin over her 2004 Republican opponent.
There's also historical precedent. The 1994 wave brought Republicans victories in "blue wall" states including conservative Republicans Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and Spencer Abraham in Michigan.
In short: It could happen. The Senate Democratic strategist conceded that in an election year as turbulent as 2010, outcomes can't be ruled out. "This has been an unpredictable election year, and I don't think the surprises are over yet."
This article appears in the September 18, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.