Much has been made of how the Tea Party had no positive effect on the margin of the control in the Senate, winning only seats where the establishment candidates would have won more easily (KY, FL etc) and losing at least three states where the establishment pick could have beaten the Dems (DE, CO, NV). Plus, in CA and CT, while the Republicans avoided the Tea Party candidates (DeVore and Schiff, respectively), they cost themselves by going with the semi-establishment rich female dilettante candidates in Fiorina and McMahon, when moderate former Congressmen Rob Simmons (R-CT) and Tom Campbell (R-CA) could have handed them the Senate altogether. Likewise, similar effects can be observed in some of the governorships, and while it's harder to determine, it probably cost them some House gains as well. Nevertheless, while Dems, the GOP establishment and some (but not all) of the press know better, the Tea Partiers are declaring victory, and as some have pointed out, this sentiment could cost the GOP more seats in 2012, and maybe even embolden them to hand the presidential nomination to Palin or someone similarly toxic.
However, I think the GOP's most stunning victory Tuesday was the one that stood against this trend towards insanity; the Illinois Senate race. And this shows that the GOP is still to be feared, on occasions.
Illinois was hard-fought, and Alexi's small loss (just 2%) was brutal; so close and so far for Dems. And honestly, out of the NV, CO and IL tossups, I thought this would be most likely to stay Democratic. After all, it's a blue state and the president's home state, while the other two are pure swing states in the Southwest. This fact only makes the loss more brutal for Dems, in terms of symbolism, but there is an explanation. The GOP were smart, for once, and nominated a moderate. It was stunning victory for the GOP, and a notable rebuttal to the Tea Party.
The contrast with DE is particularly stark. Both races started out on the same course; Obama and Biden vacating the seats, placeholders appointed. A reasonably thick Democratic bench in each state, any of whom would be favored against a generic conservative Republican. And precisely one candidate on the GOP side in each state whom the Democrats had to fear, with identifical profiles. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Mike Castle (R-DE), both pro-choice, socially moderate Republicans, each holding down a district where a Dem would otherwise be favored (proven by the Dem win in DE-AL, though the loss to Bob Dold in IL-10 was a huge blow). Each of them the only real statewide prospect for their parties. But here's where the divergence occured; in each state the Democrats prayed for the Republican right to scuttle the "traitor" in their primary. This occured in Delaware with O'Donnell, turning a 20 point GOP gain into a 20 point deficit in one fell swoop with the primary, which occured in September. But in IL-Sen, while Kirk was forced to run to the right a bit in the primary (flip-flopping on cap and trade, for example) and did only take 56% of the GOP primary vote, his nearest teabaggy challenger (Patrick Hughes) never took off as Dems hoped, and a host of candidates spilt the remaining 44%. It helped that IL-Sen primary was early, occuring in Februrary 2010, long before wins in Utah and Alaska emboldened the Tea Party, but the here the Tea Party failed in their jihad against the moderates and the establishment within the GOP. In the end, this was perhaps one of the only key Senate races where the GOP got their best candidate.
Giannoulias's banking scandal (while largely an unfair distortion, I cede) hurt him, and without it, he could of won, especially given Kirk's own scandal over his misrepresentations. But Kirk's moderate appeal, at least on social issues, accounts for his win given the false-equivalence "both are tainted" effect on the two scandals and the contrast to the GOP losses in DE, CO and NV. There's also a contrast to the Gov's race in Illinois itself, where the GOP chose State Sen. Bill Brady, a downstate conservative, over State Sen. Kirk Dilliard, a Chicago-area moderate, and narrowly lost to an embattled Governor Quinn in another very hard-fought race.
Not only was it the GOP's best victory in the Senate, I predict Kirk will be the one of their most powerful Senators. In the last Senate, Dems constantly found themselves begging and bartering with Snowe, Collins, Specter (prior to his switch) and, after his election, Scott Brown. Basically, the only Republicans who had any incentive to be moderate or sane. They've abused this power beyond end, to the great frustration of the Democrats; Snowe's flirting on healthcare, their votes against cloture on DREAM/DADT etc. But the few times the 59-member Senate actually broke its fillibusters, it was because of these people. Mike Castle would have joined them, but thankfully we will have a loyal vote in Senator Chris Coons instead. But unfortunately, Illinois came to early in the primary cycle for the GOP to stanch defeat from the jaws of victory.
It's an interesting question for Dems whether, long-term, we want the GOP to be sane or not. Clearly, it can be electorally beneficial for the Republicans to make bad choices in certain races. But some of most painful losses were where the GOP won despite nominating sub-standard candidates; we can't forget Ron Johnson's win in WI-Sen, or Rick Scott's for Florida Governor. Some of the worst freshman House members might be gone in two years, but Governor Scott will be around until 2014, and Senator Johnson til 2016. And some, like the odius Marco Rubio, might reach the White House. In a two-party system, the GOP is going to win sometimes, even when they're crazy. Long-term, having one party completely gripped by mania, whether they are in power or in opposition, is not good for healthy, vibrant democracy. But IL-Sen shows us that, good or bad, the GOP cannot always be counted on to be insane.