Delaware’s tea party leaders vow to regroup

By WADE MALCOLM– The News Journal

For the past several weeks, Donald and Kellie Goldsborough have crisscrossed the state, traveling from event to event in a well-worn pickup truck.

The passion for their cause never failed to draw attention. A huge “Christine O’Donnell United States Senate” sign sat in the bed of the truck. A spotlight, running off the engine’s battery, ensured it could be seen even in darkness.

The Smryna couple, both 40, had never engaged in politics much before.

“We just do spontaneous campaigning,” said Kellie Goldsborough. “We never did that for anyone before.”

After its stunning Republican primary success, Delaware’s conservative grass-roots movement was humbled by Election Day defeats, leaving many to wonder where it goes from here — and whether it will continue capturing the passion of people like the Goldsboroughs.

The answer might determine its future impact on state politics, and more pointedly, the state’s Republican Party.

Some say the events of this election will have long-lasting effects, others remain unconvinced.

“It’s a movement whose depth and breadth we haven’t yet seen,” said Bill Lee, a former Republican gubernatorial nominee. “I know the people involved. I know their passion. The movement is stronger than the candidate.”

The various tea party and “patriot” groups will fight to have a voice within the Delaware GOP, and they may become the future of the party, said Russ Murphy, executive director of the 9-12 Delaware Patriots.

“If you look at the primaries, the Republican Party had candidates they endorsed. And they didn’t win,” Murphy said. “The people came out and voted for the people that met with them, that they knew had their values. I think that sent a message to the party. I think [the tea party groups] will have a lot of effect on the party. They won’t be able to ignore us.”

With the defeat of O’Donnell and U.S. House hopeful Glen Urquhart, many expect the struggle for the soul of the Delaware GOP will continue, pitting moderates against the party’s conservative wing.

“You might see some pushback,” said Don Mell, a Republican strategist and supporter of U.S. Rep. Mike Castle, who lost to O’Donnell in the primary. “It’s not like all the pro-Castle people in the Republican Party just vaporized. … There will be a tug of war one way or another.”

Some believe the bad economy has bolstered the zeal of tea party groups and their impact in Delaware and the country will not last beyond this election cycle.

“I don’t think you’ll see the same movement in 2012 you see now,” said Rhett Ruggerio, a former Democratic National Committee member from Delaware. “They’ll be yesterday’s flavor by 2012.”

People now forget, Ruggerio said, that President Barack Obama’s candidacy started as a liberal groundswell. And his waning popularity speaks to the fragility of such movements, Ruggerio added.

“My sense is this is probably the opposite of the 2008 movement — the Barack Obama far-left movement,” he said. “Now we see the far-right movement. In 2012, if things don’t get better, then we’ll have the next movement.”

Democratic partisans, of course, viewed Tuesday’s results as a repudiation of the tea party here.

“The tea party’s message in this state just doesn’t fly,” said Attorney General Beau Biden, who won re-election Tuesday.

While the passion in this election cycle has been potent, Mell agreed it won’t be easy to maintain.

“How do you keep people engaged when there’s downtime?” Mell said. “There’s two years until the next election, so how do you keep that energy cranked up?”

Leaders of the grass-roots groups say they will be a permanent presence.

“There will be some people that say we got here, we did it, we’re done,” said Susan Welsh of Founder’s Values, a conservative group that supports the tea party. “But we’re not done. We got into this position because we went to sleep, and that can’t happen again.”

The 9-12 Delaware Patriots plan to keep their members engaged by focusing on state issues in the next year. They plan to lobby Legislative Hall to create a referendum system in the state because “it’s the direct voice of the people,” Murphy said.

They also plan to push a bill to block the new health care law by forcing the Attorney General’s Office to sue the federal government, as several other states have done. A similar effort failed last session.

And they will continue passionately supporting candidates who reflect their ideology.

“We’re encouraging people to run for office. Run for local office, run for school board,” Murphy said. “I think you’re going to see even more new people running next time around.”