The Party Crashers: Behind the New Republican Revival

How a new breed of Republican candidates — including Christine O'Donnell, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Meg Whitman — tapped into voter rage and upset the Establishment

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Peter Hapak for Time

Rand Paul

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Whitman's problem is that the bloom is off the rose of the CEO. If the economic collapse proved anything, it is that having a lot of money doesn't always make a person wise. What's more, recent years have shown us that some of the same tycoons who extol small government when it's time to pay their taxes will dash to Washington on their private jets to beg a bailout the minute things go sour. They admire the creative destruction of the free market only until it's their turn to be destroyed.

In a Gallup poll earlier this year, Big Business ranked among the least trusted institutions in America — even lower than the news media. The free-spending Whitman has been whipsawed by that perception. On issues large and small, ranging from her ties to Goldman Sachs to her former nanny's immigration status, Democrats have endeavored to convert Whitman's most obvious strength (her financial acumen) into a fatal flaw.

Voters are ready to throw the bums out, and CEOs have joined the ranks of the bums. The same dilemma faces former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as she seeks to unseat California Senator Barbara Boxer. After three terms in office, Democrat Boxer has struggled to reach 50% support in the polls, yet she held a slight lead over Fiorina in the last days of the campaign. Meanwhile, in the race to be Florida's next governor, Republican Rick Scott, a hospital-industry entrepreneur, was neck and neck with former banking executive Alex Sink, a Democrat. Their debates have largely boiled down to trading jabs over which of them was the more rapacious and irresponsible mogul. It's that kind of year.

4. The Troublemaker
But if it's good to be an underdog and a step or two outside the GOP mainstream, the story of Christine O'Donnell suggests that outsidery underdoggedness can be taken too far.

No one familiar with Delaware politics would have been surprised when O'Donnell entered the Republican Senate primary against the state's lone Congressman, Representative Mike Castle. After all, 2010 marked O'Donnell's third bid for the Senate, and her previous two bids showed that she had a weakness for hopeless cases. In 2006, when the Evangelical Christian conservative challenged Senator Thomas Carper as a write-in candidate, she received fewer than 12,000 votes to Carper's 170,000. Two years later, O'Donnell won the GOP nomination to face now Vice President Joe Biden, who won by 30 percentage points. This time around, Delaware Republican chairman Tom Ross, a Castle backer, believes O'Donnell is running because campaign donations help pay her household bills. "She's a candidate who runs for office [who] unfortunately lives off the proceeds," he said.

O'Donnell certainly has none of Whitman's problems of too much money and too many connections. She was an occasionally employed activist known for her appearances as a panelist on comedian Bill Maher's old television show, Politically Incorrect. Voters soon learned that she had fallen behind on her house payments, which helped her relate to real people, she explained. More questions arose: about her record of tardy campaign-finance reports, about the fact that her campaign was paying her rent, about the claims about her education that did not check out. As for the time she told Maher about dabbling in witchcraft? She was referring to high school, she explained. "If I were planning to run for office" during those TV appearances, "I would have been much more guarded," O'Donnell recently told an interviewer. "Not that I regret anything I've said, but because I'm a vocal person. I state my opinion when I think that something's wrong or right. I speak up." The surprise came when O'Donnell defeated Castle for the Republican nomination. This was both a high-water mark and a low moment for Tea Party influence inside the GOP. It proved that the small-government purists were in fact the driving force of 2010. Castle was well known, well funded and well organized. He had solid support from state and national Republican institutions, which saw in him an excellent chance to pick up a seat that had been held by Democrats for decades. Castle's only offense was squishiness, a cardinal sin to the insurgents. So they dumped him in favor of a much weaker candidate, in part just to show that they could.

This gesture might end up costing the GOP control of the Senate, because O'Donnell quickly proved herself to be a crate of tea that wouldn't float. With her nomination, Democrat Chris Coons went from a double-digit deficit to a double-digit lead. As his star rose, Republicans' hopes of recapturing the Senate sank, dragged down by a candidate who was not ready even for cable television. But O'Donnell's startling, out-of-nowhere rise has already put a scare into any remaining moderates who might have failed to heed Charlie Crist's lesson.

And so the drama of 2010 plainly sets the stage for Act III in 2012. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky previewed the action in an interview published eight days before the voting, saying the "single most important thing that we want to achieve" after the election "is for President Obama to be a one-term President." To that end, candidates are already jockeying for position at the front of the GOP casting call. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in late October pandered to the muscle-flexing Tea Partyers by denouncing all doubters of O'Donnell as "country club" elitists. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, another aspirant, is tacking hard in the Tea Party direction, giving a sharper edge to what used to be his amiable, pragmatic persona. With CEOs out of favor, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts — whose failed 2008 presidential bid was built on his skill as a corporate-turnaround artist — may require retooling. And it goes without saying that all eyes will remain on Sarah Palin's Facebook page.

Remember, at this point two years ago, Crist was king of Florida politics, and Rubio was an asterisk. History tells us that small-government conservatism is a volatile element in the Republican coalition — powerful, restorative but also potentially explosive. It fueled Reagan's landslide victories in 1980 and 1984. But the same energy backfired in Barry Goldwater's crushing 1964 defeat. The fight to harness its power is a big story, and that story is only beginning.

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