woody_zimmerman_118_2007Political pundits of all stripes have worked themselves into a complete lather about the Tea Party having “ruined” a sure Republican win in Delaware, where Congressman Mike Castle was expected to win the Senate seat vacated by Vice-president Joe Biden. The Grand Poobahs of Political Thought say that Tea Party yahoos have wrecked the GOP’s winning scenario by choosing Christine O’Donnell to oppose the Democrats’ candidate, Chris Coons. Mr. Castle has been very popular in the state and in the House of Representatives, where he is known as a political “moderate” (meaning that he sometimes goes along with Democrats). But the congressman is definitely “establishment,” while Miss O’Donnell is a fresh, conservative voice in a distinctly middle-of-the-road state. She is very good-looking, too, which may or may not be an advantage in this curious era when handsome ladies are not considered serious politicians.

The establishment pols of both parties are enraged over voters’ temerity in overturning GOP elders’ choice of the venerable Mr. Castle (age 71) in favor of the comely Miss O’Donnell (41). The Mainstream Media have echoed and amplified that outrage by trashing the Tea Party’s nominee with dark allegations of financial “problems.” (No! Not a nominee with financial problems! Dear god, what’s next?)

There have even been suggestions that Miss O’Donnell has dabbled in witchcraft. (How that differs from Hillary Clinton’s admission that she “channeled” Eleanor Roosevelt at various times in her career has not yet been clarified.) Worse yet, a video-clip has now surfaced of Miss O’Donnell denouncing masturbation. Of course, that’s fatal. She couldn’t possibly be elected to the Senate if the charge is true, since most of what the Senate does is a form of… (Well, never mind.)

Maybe the political graybeards are right about Miss O’Donnell’s electability, and maybe they aren’t. But in the midst of the Sturm und Drang about voters’ failure to obey their leaders, may we pause just a moment to speak the name (and reflect on the character) of Senator Arlen Specter. In case readers’ memories have dimmed, Mr. Specter is the senior senator from Pennsylvania – originally elected as a Republican in 1980, but transformed into a Democrat in 2009. Mr. Specter spent much time and energy during President Bush’s first term, siding with Democrats and bedeviling his own party’s leadership on judicial appointments and other legislative matters.

Indeed, Senator Specter opposed his party’s positions so often, and at such critical junctures, that a significant opposition movement arose in Pennsylvania, in 2004. Former Representative Pat Toomey mounted a formidable primary challenge to Senator Specter, which came within a whisker of succeeding. Nevertheless – ignoring warnings about Mr. Specter’s party-loyalty – GOP leaders invested money and support in his 2004 re-election campaign. Indeed, Mr. Bush campaigned personally for the senator. That assistance helped Mr. Specter squeak through the primary and ultimately capture a fifth term.

Mr. Specter subsequently rewarded Republicans’ loyalty by changing his party-affiliation to Democrat in April 2009, soon after Barack Obama took office. Coincidentally (or not), this was around the same time that conservative opponents began running ads calling for the senator’s recall because of his support for the Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the “Stimulus”). Insiders claimed that Mr. Specter switched parties to avoid another primary challenge from former Pat Toomey. It was also whispered that Democrats had promised Mr. Specter a Senate committee-chair for switching parties, but this did not materialize after he helped Democrats gain a 60-seat majority in the 111th Congress.

The political current in Pennsylvania was flowing strongly against Senator Specter in 2004, but “wise” GOP leaders had decided that it was best to stick with “good old Arlen.” In 2009 they were cleaning egg off their faces, while their former "comrade” caucused with Democrats and helped the Obama administration ram its agenda through a veto-proof Senate. (Nice work – very impressive.)

The denouement of this political morality play went down recently, when Congressman Joe Sestak defeated Senator Specter in the Democratic primary. The congressman claimed that Obama operatives had offered him an administration post if he would agree not to oppose Senator Specter in the Pennsylvania primary - an offer he obviously declined without saying whether he considered accepting it. Administration spokesmen huffily denied the charge, but an unpleasant aroma lingered around the whole business. (At this writing, no congressional investigations have been scheduled to look into possible election-meddling.) Mr. Sestak won the nomination easily; he will face Republican candidate Pat Toomey in the November election. Mr. Specter will conclude his fifth term as senator, and will return to his Pennsylvania-home as a private citizen.

This account is not intended to denigrate Mr. Specter’s public service in any way. He had his own reasons – probably forever unknowable – for changing parties last year. We can only speculate on that. The point I want to make is that party leaders sometimes don’t know what’s best any more than voters do. Careful political calculations can be upset when voters go outside leaders’ and pundits’ expectations. Last January this happened in Massachusetts, when a strong current of fiscal restraint ran through a dependably liberal state – sweeping aside Dems’ hand-picked candidate and unexpectedly putting newcomer Scott Brown in the Senate seat held for 47 years by Senator Edward Kennedy. It was a blast from the Tea Party –only the first of many to come, I daresay. Miss O’Donnell’s victory was another shot to the chops of Establishment pols. More surprises may lie ahead, as the Tea Party flexes its grass-roots muscles.

My political counsel – for what it’s worth – would be that GOP leaders should tread very cautiously in their criticism of voters for making an “unapproved” choice. Republicans will do well to lend Miss O’Donnell the support and funding any Republican candidate has a right to expect. If they don’t, she might lose, of course, fulfilling the predictions of many. But if she wins without GOP support, she might feel little loyalty to a party that spurned her. This ground is filled with political mines for Republicans. They should not let their noses get so far out of joint that they miss seeing the dangers.

As for Miss O’Donnell’s “electability” – or lack thereof – I cannot predict what voters in Delaware will do. Her opponent, Chris Coons, is far to the left side of the political spectrum. (Some radio talk-jocks call him a “bearded Marxist.”) Whether voters will take him, over the somewhat controversial Tea Party favorite, Christine O’Donnell, remains to be seen. But it’s not hard to see that voters are looking for someone who comes to public service without the heavy baggage of a long-time political apparatchik. This, I believe, is why they took Miss O’Donnell over the well-liked Mr. Castle.

Witchcraft or not, it may yet be (as the Duke of Wellington famously said of Waterloo) “...a damned close-run thing.”