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Preston: Final act begins in 2010 election

By Mark Preston, CNN Senior Political Editor
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O'Donnell thanks supporters
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 2010 primaries end with seven incumbents losing bids for re-election
  • Republicans try to harness energy of Tea Party movement
  • Democrats hope to minimize losses, maintain House control

Washington (CNN) -- The curtain slammed down on the 2010 primaries Tuesday night crushing centrist Republican Rep. Mike Castle and handing the Tea Party movement a final victory in its battle with the GOP establishment.

Castle's upset loss to Tea Party favorite Christine O'Donnell was the exclamation point on a bitter and bruising primary season that saw seven incumbents lose re-election and angry political bases turn deaf ears to national leaders.

Republican Sens. Robert Bennett of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska fell to Tea Party candidates as did South Carolina GOP Rep. Bob Inglis. West Virginia Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan could not convince voters to re-nominate him for a 15th term, while Michigan Democratic Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick failed in her bid for an eighth term.

Party-switching Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith was unable to convince GOP voters he was a solid Republican, and Pennsylvania's new Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter was unable to shed his longtime Republican political identity. And let's not forget the Tea Party's wins in primaries for open Senate seats in Colorado, Florida, and Kentucky.

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And then there was Castle, a soft-spoken former Republican governor turned nine-term congressman, who left the safety of his House seat to run for the Senate seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden. Castle was favored to win the general election, which would have handed the GOP a huge symbolic win. Instead, Castle lost, which now casts doubt over whether Republicans can win this contest.

Once O'Donnell was declared the winner, my friend Stuart Rothenberg, the respected non-partisan political analyst, immediately described Democratic Senate nominee Chris Coons as the favorite to win the race.

"Castle had broad appeal, including to independents and even Democratic voters, while O'Donnell's appeal is limited to tea party conservatives," Rothenberg wrote.

And Rothenberg is not the only one who thinks that the Tea Party's efforts to defeat Castle -- who they charge is a "RINO" (Republican In Name Only) -- will likely hand Democrats a win in November. A top Republican official told me not to expect to see national Republicans rally around O'Donnell's candidacy.

"Until she demonstrates some viability in the polls, we are not going to have any money for her," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It is now incumbent on Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint and the Tea Party Express to help support her. They got her here. Now make it happen."

Castle is not technically considered an incumbent, but he fit the description of a Washington insider, had the backing of the national GOP and will go down in the history books as the Tea Party's final GOP scalp of the 2010 primary season.

Now all eyes are focused on November 2, as Republican leaders try to harness the anger and energy of the Tea Party movement and translate it into electoral wins, while Democrats work to build a beachhead in an effort to minimize losses and maintain control of the House.

There is no question that Democrats will lose seats in the House and Senate this year, what remains unanswered is how many?

Republicans need a net pickup of 39 seats in the House to take back the majority, an achievable number if momentum continues to move in the GOP's direction. It will be harder if not impossible to win the 10 seats needed to wrest control of the Senate from Democratic hands.

Democratic leaders and top party officials have been very clear about their strategy over the next seven weeks: Turn out voters who supported President Obama in 2008 and define each race on its own merits.

"Democrats will individualize each of these House races, make it about candidate A versus candidate B and when voters are left with that choice, Democrats will retain the House," said Jennifer Crider, deputy executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But Democrats will need help from the liberal Democratic base, which at times has been estranged from the national leadership, to help hold back the GOP wave that analysts predict will sweep across the nation.

The influential liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, founder of Daily Kos who does not shy away from criticizing the Democratic establishment, predicted that liberal voters will show up in November for Democratic candidates.

"It's already happening," he said. "The prospect of some of these radical Republicans taking office is certainly a motivating factor. The crazier the Republican, the more motivated we become. A slightly more combative White House also helps."

The task ahead for Republicans will be to maintain this Tea Party enthusiasm and convert it into votes in November as well as convince independent voters that the GOP is better positioned to breathe new life into the economy and put people back to work.

House GOP leaders will soon present to the American people their blueprint of policy ideas -- akin to the 1994 "Contract with America" -- an action they hope neutralizes Democratic charges that Republicans have failed to offer ideas and solutions.

The GOP will make gains in the House and Senate in November, a notion that seemed unrealistic if not preposterous shortly after Obama was sworn into office. But there is still time for Democrats to dig in and create a defensive line to help them hold onto enough seats to maintain control of Congress.

Even if Democrats are able to keep control of Congress, Republicans said they will still claim victory on November 3.

"At the very least, Democrats are going to lose functional control of the House of Representatives," said Ken Spain, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

 
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