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ROBINSON: Enthusiasm is required to beat the 'unelectable'

Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson

Not to spoil the fun, but Democrats shouldn’t take the Republican Party’s bitter internal warfare — and the inexperienced, flaky candidates who’ve emerged from the fray — as any kind of reassurance about November. Try as it might, the GOP probably can’t defeat itself. Not this year, anyway.

I don’t mean that the battle between the Republican establishment and the take-no-prisoners tea party insurgency is inconsequential. When Christine O’Donnell, a tea party favorite, won the Senate primary in Delaware on Tuesday, my first reaction was that this one result almost guarantees that the Democratic Party’s majority in the Senate is safe.

On reflection, I think “almost guarantees” should be downgraded to something like “makes it likely.” And in moments of existential despair, I fear that she might actually win.

Highly respected strategists in both parties have said that it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the GOP captures the Senate without the Delaware seat. The party establishment thought it had the perfect candidate in Mike Castle, a veteran congressman with moderate views. But the tea party movement staged an uprising, and a flood of out-of-state campaign money and volunteers delivered victory in the primary to O’Donnell — whom the Republican establishment considers unelectable.

She should be. During the primary campaign, which became a real snarl-fest, probing by journalists and opposition researchers into O’Donnell’s background came up with material that ought to be devastating.

Amid the trove were old television clips in which she said bizarre or outlandish things; on MTV, speaking on behalf of sexual abstinence before marriage, she once argued that even self-gratification should be foresworn.

It was revealed that O’Donnell’s personal finances were in disarray — she had stopped paying her mortgage and been sued for failing to pay her college tuition. Before launching her campaign, she had no steady job, reporting only $5,800 in income last year. And while she said she graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University about 17 years ago, she actually earned her degree from the school just several weeks ago. The campaign manager for her failed 2008 Senate campaign publicly called O’Donnell a “complete fraud.”

That adds up to unelectable, right? It does, but only in a sane and just world — which means all bets are off.

O’Donnell is poised and telegenic, with a sparkle that her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, will be hard-pressed to match. She has mastered what should be called the Sarah Palin Effect — the perkiness, the folksiness, the religiosity, the occasional flash of bared fangs — and she performs it well.

While Republican pooh-bahs in Washington and Wilmington argue whether to pour any real money into the race — or just give it up as lost — O’Donnell will be showered with campaign cash from tea party groups and supporters across the country. If Democrats mount an energetic campaign, and generate some enthusiasm among the party faithful, they can beat her. If they don’t, she might prevail.

The same is true in other contests that the Democrats ought to be able to win. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in trouble with his constituents in Nevada, got lucky when the Republicans nominated Sharron Angle — a tea partier — to run against him. He quickly vaulted ahead in the polls as Angle’s extreme positions became known and her bizarre remarks were disseminated. But the most recent polls show her numbers climbing back up, and Reid is in the fight of his life.

When tea party support swept Rand Paul to the Republican nomination for Senate in Kentucky, Democrats thought they might even be able to steal a GOP seat. Now, though, it looks as if Paul is likely to win. Similarly, in Alaska, tea party favorite Joe Miller is the front-runner — unless the GOP senator he ousted in the primary, Lisa Murkowski, decides to run in the general election as a write-in.

Tuesday was the best day Democrats have had in a long time — but only in relative terms. Republicans invited the tea party into the GOP tent, and now have to worry about being devoured. But at least the party is full of passion, energy and resolve — which can’t be said of the Democrats, at least not with a straight face.

If the Democrats can’t generate some real enthusiasm among the base, and fast, the word “unelectable” may cease to have meaning. Counting on the Republicans to self-immolate may be the Democrats’ hope, but it’s not a plan.

Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. E-mail him at eugenerobinson@washpost.com.