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Primaries prove Palin, Tea Party are for real

By Ed Rollins, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • Ed Rollins says primaries prove Tea Party and Palin are the ones with clout now
  • He says endorsement from GOP establishment turned out to be candidates' kiss of death
  • Voters energized against the status quo, he says; Democrats mock the winners at their peril
  • Rollins: Run up to general election likely to be exciting, unpredictable

Editor's note: Ed Rollins is senior presidential fellow at the Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. He is a principal with the Dilenschneider Group, a global public relations firm. He was White House political director for President Ronald Reagan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Tonight on AC360 he plays "master strategist" for a New York congressional candidate.

(CNN) -- The preliminaries are over; let the battles begin. With less than seven weeks to go, here are the conclusions of the primary season completed yesterday.

The Tea Party is for real! Sarah Palin is the woman!

Whether mainstream Republicans or the political class like it, she is the darling of the angry, motivated voters out there and her endorsement counts big time, at least in Republican primaries.

Forget Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's endorsement. In May, he couldn't even get his hand-picked candidate the nomination in a state he is supposed to control. You want to win, get support from Senator Jim DeMint, chairman of the conservative Senate Republican Steering Committee, or former Majority leader and Tea Party activist Dick Armey.

Not every Palin-endorsed candidate won, but she certainly was a major player in taking unknown candidates and getting them across the finish line. The winners in the Senate primaries yesterday in New Hampshire and Delaware yesterday were just added to that list.

I can't remember any political cycle where the Republican establishment took the mugging its taken over the last few months.

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Being endorsed by the Washington establishment or the National Republican Senate Committee just wasn't important. In many cases it was the kiss of death. Eight candidates endorsed or favored by the committee were defeated.

The oldest premise in politics is that only those who participate and bother to vote get to pick the winners. Being ahead in polls and or being the choice of the pundit class doesn't mean much if you can't get the voters to turn out for you.

The energized voters, in many cases, didn't want the status quo. In the case of Sens. Bob Bennett of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who lost their earlier primaries, and Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, who until yesterday had been the presumed next Senator, voters in their own party didn't want them at all. Also left for dead along the roadway, having been run over by the Tea Party Express, are the sitting governor and the attorney general of Florida.

In New York state, the handpicked and Republican-endorsed candidate for governor and for one of two Senate seats were crushed by the Tea Party-backed candidates.

But even with the support of the Tea Party, Chris Cox, the grandson of former President Richard Nixon, ran a distant third after spending millions in hopes of getting a GOP nomination for Congress. His father, Ed Cox, is the New York Republican party chairman (at least for the time being).

The once-popular mayor of Washington, Democrat Adrian Fenty, went down to defeat in his primary to challenger Vincent Gray, which shows both sides better be listening to angry voters.

Democrats think the results are good news for them. They are looking into the electoral abyss and, with a president diminishing in popularity, have for months tried in vain to sell their unpopular legislative accomplishments: the stimulus bill, Wall Street reform and the health care clunker. They now are shifting their strategy to running against the "kooks," as some call the Tea Party-endorsed winners.

They will attempt to paint the primary winners as out of the mainstream and charge that the Republican Party has no room for moderates or thinking conservatives. I feel that strategy will fail as badly as the several others that they have tried.

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The Democratic Party, with a political base that's not enthusiastic, calling the most motivated voters on the other side a bunch of kooks is not going to make the Tea Party supporters stay home in November.

Some of these nominated candidates are going to win in November, and trying to sit down and negotiate with people you called names for months is only going to harden the resolve of these new senators.

I admit the Republican Party won't be the same in the foreseeable future, but that is a good thing. The Tea Party is here to stay and we can either welcome them to the party and try to utilize their energy and listen to their concerns, or suffer great consequences.

The Republican Party, which has always been a top-down operation, is now being battered by those voters who really matter. Of course the leader of the party, the irrelevant Michael Steele, was last heard from while touring Guam and raising money for the nonvoting congressional candidate in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (making him the first RNC chair to ever visit the region).

Maybe he has a different strategy than the rest of us. I would hope he can find a few candidates closer to home.

The next few weeks are going to be exciting, very important and, if the past is prologue, very unpredictable.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.

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