Parting From Palin: Delaware Race Shows Divisions Within Tea Party, GOP Establishment

Conservative group FreedomWorks doesn't endorse Tea Party candidate.

September 13, 2010, 12:50 PM

Sept. 13, 2010— -- In a break from other Tea Party groups, the leadership of conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks today refused to endorse Christine O'Donnell, the candidate for U.S. Senate in Delaware who is backed by Sarah Palin, and who is in a neck-and-neck primary race with GOP establishment favorite Rep. Mike Castle.

The reason? "We're not convinced Christine O'Donnell can win," FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

"Every one of these primaries is a judgment call, but there's no point in winning a primary if you lose the election," Kibbe told ABC News.

Polls show O'Donnell in a tight race with Castle. Her campaign has been fuelled by an endorsement from Palin and the Tea Party Express, which was instrumental in bringing Joe Miller to the forefront in Alaska, helping the virtually unknown candidate defeat Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the primaries.

As of last week, the Tea Party Express had pledged $250,000 for O'Donnell, although that's a much smaller amount than the $600,000 the group funneled into Miller's campaign.

Even though she has the backing of the Tea Party Express, there is little momentum for O'Donnell on the ground, unlike the enthusiasm that other Tea Party favorites like Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey garnered, said former House Majority Leader and FreedomWorks leader Dick Armey, whose group is aligned with the Tea Party.

"We always take our lead... from our activists on the ground and our activists on the ground have not been as enthusiastic about her candidacy, so the fact is why would we take a position... when there's no clear sense that that's what the movement wants?" Armey said.

Armey, however, questioned Castle's own standing, saying: "I think the question for Mike Castle is: if he can't win his primary, does he deserve to win the general (election)?"

The divisions within the Tea Party movement are not surprising, its leaders say. There is no one unified voice that speaks for the group and there is no umbrella organization representing the movement -- although some have claimed to do so.

Yet the grassroots movement has emerged as a powerful force in the primaries, and it has been critical in toppling over key Republican incumbents. Beyond the major blow delivered to Murkowski in Alaska, the Tea Party was key in defeating Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah for a second term. Tea Party groups have also helped propel virtual unknowns, including Miller and Sharron Angle, who is challenging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada.

Despite its popularity and rising numbers, the Republican establishment has been hesitant to fully embrace the Tea Party yet. In fact, there is some concern that its candidates may not be viable in the general elections.

Democrats have attacked Tea Party candidates for opposing services close to Americans' hearts, such as Social Security and Medicare. In Nevada, Angle has taken heat for making statements like Democratic policies are "in violation of the First Commandment," while in Kentucky, Rand Paul's comments on the Civil Rights Act got national attention.

Kibbe dismissed any idea that Tea Party-backed candidates are not electable, saying that the Republican establishment's calculus for electability is "a little skewed."

The "Republican establishment is nervous because their favored candidates have been replaced with people that (former Senate Majority Leader) Trent Lott doesn't control," Kibbe said. "It's not just about a name ... (or) how much money you have, it's about who you are and what you stand for."

The key to their victory is that Tea Party groups are listening to people on the ground, Armey said, and he expressed confidence than Angle will win in Nevada.

The "question is what is the energy that's going to produce results on election day, and Democrats right now are confused and dispirited," he said. They're "very likely not to show up."

The Republicans' prospects in the November elections do look rosier than Democrats. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released last week showed that voters now favor the Republican over the Democratic candidate in their congressional district by 53-40 percent, the widest GOP margin on record in the poll since 1981.

In contrast, a majority of Americans held an unfavorable view of the Tea Party -- 45 percent to 38 percent.

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