Christine O'Donnell's GOP primary upset in Delaware on Tuesday is just one more feather in the caps of Tea Party activists, who now boast a handful of Senate candidates in November.
O'Donnell's victory comes at the expense of nine-term Rep. Mike Castle, who, until last week, was the presumed shoo-in to fill Vice President Joe Biden's former seat. Such an upset has become almost mundane for Tea Partiers, who celebrated a similar win last month when dark horse Joe Miller defeated incumbent Lisa Murkowski in the Alaska Senate race.
But now the grassroots movement approaches a new hurdle: how to turn primary successes against establishment Republicans into general election victories against Democrats.
Amy Kremer, chair of the Tea Party Express -- which gave O'Donnell key support in Delaware -- says that plan doesn't exist yet.
"Honestly, all we [have been] focused on lately is the primary in Delaware," said Kremer. "And we just came from Alaska.... So we're going to have to regroup a little bit and look at these candidates that we've endorsed and figure out what we need to do for them going into the general."
But a month and a half away from the Nov. 2 deadline, that uncertainty could prove fatal to the political interests of fiscal responsibility and limited government that the Tea Party has been advocating for a year and a half. Reagan scholar and former political strategist Craig Shirley says that upending fellow Republicans and beating Democrats are two different challenges, and the Tea Party's experience lies primarily in the former.
Tea Partiers "derive their strength from standing up to the Republican Party when it goes off on what they consider to be a wrong direction," Shirley said. Now, he says, voters can expect to see in the general election the same anti-establishment message Tea Partiers used in the primaries.
"What we're seeing is a populist trend; that these people are just anti any concentration of power, whether Democrat or Republican," Shirley said. "So going into the general election, the first thing I would tell [Tea Party candidates] is not to listen to Republican consultants. Republican consultants are trapped into an old political paradigm that you run to the right in the primaries and then you run to the middle. But that's old-school."
In her victory speech Tuesday night, O'Donnell showed no signs of hedging the Tea Party-conservative values that set her apart from her Republican rivals.
"As we go forward, I'd like to make this election about the issues," she said. "How we're going to get jobs back in Delaware, how we're going to protect the security of our homeland, how we're going to take care of our veterans, how we're going to make sure that future generations are not saddled with a crippling debt."
But in that same speech, O'Donnell also thanked Sarah Palin for the endorsement that "gave us a boost of encouragement when we needed it." The former Alaska governor has become a polarizing figure even within the Tea Party, and an endorsement that may have benefited O'Donnell early on could prove detrimental to gaining moderate support in November.
Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of the political action committee FreedomWorks, stood with former House Majority Leader and FreedomWorks chair Dick Armey in refusing to endorse O'Donnell, arguing that she can't win in the general election.
"It doesn't make any sense to nominate a candidate who is philosophically perfect if they're not capable of winning an elected office," Kibbe said.
Kibbe's hesitation reflects the underlying concern among Tea Partiers and Republicans alike that the 39 seats required for Republicans to take back the House won't be attainable with dark horse candidates.
To put up the best fight possible, though, Kibbe says he would advise O'Donnell "to focus on the fiscal issues of constitutionally limited government and stopping Congress from spending money it doesn't have."
Kremer says this tactic, familiar in this election cycle, could be enough to propel O'Donnell and her fellow Tea Partiers to Capitol Hill.
"When most people go to the polls this year, they're voting on the economy," Kremer said. "This whole movement was born out of the excessive taxation, the out-of-control spending, the government intrusion. And people are fed up with it.
"It's the fiscal issues that are the glue binding this Tea Party together."
The real test of just how adhesive that glue is will come Nov. 2.