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.
In an odd interview with The Weekly Standard last week, O’Donnell claimed, without proof or a police report in hand, that her home and office were vandalized by Castle apparatchiks. “They’re following me,” she told reporter John McCormack. “They follow me home at night. I make sure that I come back to the townhouse and then we have our team come out and check all the bushes and check all the cars to make sure that — they follow me.”
Indeed, as her campaign has gained national attention, O’Donnell clearly has become spooked, to the chagrin of her enthusiastic supporters. She has accused a conservative talk-radio host, who previously had endorsed her, of being “paid off,” and questioned the integrity of Rasmussen’s latest poll because, well, its numbers show her losing. A former senior aide for her campaign has also muddied the field with an unseemly web video that asks whether Castle has been unfaithful to his wife. O’Donnell, for her part, quickly distanced herself from the video, but the taint remains.
O’Donnell’s complicated résumé has also done her few favors. It was reported by Politico last week that she received her bachelor’s degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University this summer — after previously claiming that she was already a graduate. Her past explanation for the lack of a diploma — her unpaid loans — was also debunked by the political website, which discovered that unfulfilled coursework also played a part. To add to the hurt, it was discovered that O’Donnell was previously mired in an uncomfortable gender-discrimination lawsuit with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative organization in Wilmington.
All of these distractions have left O’Donnell flailing for a narrative. Conservative superstars like Sarah Palin, whose endorsement was critical in helping Joe Miller upset Murkowski, have stayed on the sidelines — though Palin did highlight a supportive Twitter message about O’Donnell from conservative talk-radio host Tammy Bruce on Wednesday. (The Hill called it a “tacit endorsement” from Palin.) Other GOP leaders, like Dick Armey, the chairman of the grassroots group FreedomWorks, have refused to get involved. Even Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who loves to tangle in GOP primaries, has sat on his hands. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, the Right’s newest hero, has come out for Castle.
To fight back, O’Donnell and the Tea Party Express will take to the local-radio airwaves on Thursday to sponsor a two-hour O’Donnell-a-thon. “This is a year where citizen activists are getting behind citizen politicians,” O’Donnell tells us. “This is about principles and the heart and soul of the party.”
“Like so many people around the country, I have struggled at times,” O’Donnell says. “But many Americans have been in similar situations and are sympathetic.” Castle’s votes for the bank bailouts and for cap-and-trade legislation, she hopes, will matter more than how she has handled her checkbook and campus credits.
“I’m very hopeful that we can win,” O’Donnell says. “In races across the country — Rand Paul, Sharron Angle — you see people getting behind constitutional conservatives.” We’ll know next Tuesday whether Delaware is ready to take a chance.
– Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.