If this were simply a battle of ideas, then, perhaps, the conservative insurgent would be galloping ahead, with the washed-out moderate left choking on tea-party dust. Delaware’s Republican Senate primary, however, has devolved into anything but an ideological scrap. Instead, strange gaffes and party infighting have turned the race into a must-watch mud-fest.
Christine O’Donnell, a former GOP operative, is the tea party’s crusader du jour. With her easy charm and big-dollar backing from the Tea Party Express, O’Donnell presents real trouble for Rep. Mike Castle, the nine-term congressman known for hugging the colorless center of American politics. Yet Castle has been able to blunt her challenge in recent weeks, by throwing salt on her self-inflicted wounds.
Unlike Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who played nice en route to primary defeat last month, Castle has gone full-Atwater, airing scalding ads about O’Donnell’s foibles. “We’re not just going to sit by and let her destroy Mike Castle,” explained a Castle campaign source to the National Journal.
With a tea-party wave potentially heading toward Rehoboth, Castle is doing what he can to stack sandbags around his campaign. In Castle’s latest spot, a baritone-voiced narrator zings O’Donnell for her back taxes, college bills, and campaign debt. The ad’s tone — gloomy and suspicious — is reminiscent of Harry Reid’s line of attack against Sharron Angle in Nevada, except this time, of course, it is Republican versus Republican. There is no mention of any policy position held by Castle, who owns a lowly 52.49 lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union.
Castle’s ads have gotten buzz, leaving O’Donnell, the party’s nominee against Sen. Joe Biden in 2008, on the defensive. Castle, who has avoided debates and kept a low profile on the trail, has ridden the rumblings about O’Donnell’s viability to a lead in the polls. With less than a week until Republicans head to the ballot box, a Rasmussen poll shows Castle in a far stronger position to defeat Democrat Chris Coons, a county executive, in the general election. Castle leads Coons by 11 points, while O’Donnell trails Coons by the same margin. For O’Donnell, the tumble has been devastating: In July, Rasmussen had her leading Coons by two.
Still, O’Donnell is far from finished. A survey by NSON Opinion Research, commissioned by the Tea Party Express last week, shows her trailing Castle by just two points among likely GOP voters. To gain momentum, however, O’Donnell will have to shake off Team Castle’s depiction of her campaign as “delusional.”
Shifting the spotlight back to the issues of Washington will be tough. According to the Wall Street Journal, O’Donnell reported less than $6,000 in income last year and still owes her 2008 campaign nearly $10,000. Questions about her finances bubble up daily. To make matters worse, O’Donnell appears to have let Castle’s sharp questions rattle her.