Mark Halperin's Take: The Party of Palin and DeMint

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Wes Duvall for TIME; DeMint: Alex Wong-Getty Images; O'Donnell: Rob Carr-AP; Palin: Alex Brandon-AP

Photo-Illustration of Jim DeMint, Christine O'Donnell, and Sarah Palin.

You can draw a straight line between the weakness of the Republican Party after Barack Obama's 2008 victory and Christine O'Donnell's win over Mike Castle in Delaware's Republican Senate primary.

Back in January 2009, the GOP was as debilitated as either major party had been in generations. The only thing it lacked more than ideas, leadership and organization was energy. Not willing to give Obama any victories and afraid to lose the only followers they had left, Republicans chose to stay on the hard right. Catering to the Tea Party and sticking to an anti-Obama legislative strategy, the GOP went into full obstructionist mode on almost every issue, and nearly always unanimously.

There will be a lot of focus, and rightly so, on the fact that O'Donnell's victory makes it highly likely that the Democrats will be able to keep the Delaware seat that was held by Joe Biden, which in turn will make it less likely that the Republicans can win the 10 seats they need to take control of the Senate. Castle was a lock to win in the general election; a senior Republican strategist told TIME right before the primary that O'Donnell has zero chance of winning in November.

But the bigger issue is the direction of the GOP. The party was unable to resist the influence of Tea Party activists who parroted Fox News and talk radio, crowded town-hall meetings to attack the Democrats' health care plans and refocused the party on the debt and deficit. All that positioned the GOP for huge gains in the midterms but spells danger for its long-term future. Only a few Republicans have spoken out about the risks of turning the party of Lincoln into the party of Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint. If the GOP doesn't find a way to build a bigger tent, it will pay a huge price after November and when it tries to beat Obama in 2012.