Politics & Policy

O’Donnell’s Challenge

Delaware’s new Senate candidate looks to November.

Dover, Del. – “I’m fried,” says Matt Moran, flatly, as he stands in the back corner of the Elks Lodge, his black P.O.W. cap pulled low. A couple of yards away, Christine O’Donnell, beaming in a ruby-red blouse, hugs volunteers and mingles with reporters. But Moran, O’Donnell’s campaign manager, keeps off to the side, taking it all in.

A few minutes earlier, O’Donnell had vanquished Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware’s GOP Senate primary, winning 53 percent of the vote to Castle’s 47 percent in a race that drew 57,000 voters. For O’Donnell, a little-known marketing consultant, it was a stunning upset. Moran, however, is in no mood to gloat — or celebrate. After a bruising on-air and online battle with fellow conservatives about O’Donnell’s viability, Moran is exhausted. It is now time, he says, for Republicans to “mend fences.”

Looking toward November, Moran, who guided conservative Doug Hoffman’s insurgent House campaign in upstate New York last year, knows that O’Donnell faces what is sure to be a rough-and-tumble campaign against Democrat Chris Coons, a county executive. O’Donnell, he says, welcomes the fight. “Christine will be a phenomenal candidate who will elevate the party as a whole,” Moran tells me. “[Republicans] need to get behind her. Her brand will sell not only in Delaware, but nationally, if you give her a shot.”

Washington Republicans appear to be unwilling to give her much of one. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has ladled a mere $42,000 to O’Donnell — just hours after an NRSC official told the Wall Street Journal that the group would sit on the sidelines. Castle, for his part, says that he will not endorse her. And top GOP strategist Karl Rove has little faith in O’Donnell’s ability to overcome “her own checkered background.” O’Donnell shrugs off their concerns. After being questioned for months about her financial history, her college degree, and her lawsuit against a former employer (among other things), she says, smiling, that she is more than ready to move on from “the politics of personal destruction” that colored the primary.

Coons, of course, will do what he can to continue to highlight O’Donnell’s perceived weak spots. The latest Public Policy Polling survey shows him leading by 16 points against O’Donnell, 50 percent to 34 percent. Emeka Igwe, O’Donnell’s campaign counsel, says that he is ready to help guide the nominee through the expected onslaught of opposition research and attack ads. “She has already been through so much,” he says, as he watches the election returns come in. “What’s coming won’t be much different than what she faced in the primary. They’ll try to slander her, but tonight shows how people are fed up with politics as usual.”

O’Donnell will have to build her general-election base in Sussex and Kent counties in southern Delaware, where she won handily last night, and find a way to make inroads in Wilmington and its suburbs, where Castle performed well. “It will be hard work,” O’Donnell says. “But we can win. If those same people who fought against me work just as hard for me, we will win.” Her team also hopes to get support from prominent conservatives who backed her candidacy, such as Sarah Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint. Others, like Mitt Romney, a potential 2012 presidential candidate, eagerly jumped on the O’Donnell bandwagon on Wednesday.

But for O’Donnell, it’s not all about talk-radio buzz and big-name endorsements. She won this primary thanks in large part to a dedicated network on the ground. Near the stage, I spot Kevin Street, the founder of Delaware’s Diamond State Tea Party, chatting with compatriots. O’Donnell’s victory, he explains, had a lot to do with state Republicans’ longstanding displeasure with Castle, who’s known as a moderate, Democrat-friendly Republican. “We are the people who really understood, before anyone else, that Christine is one of us,” he says. The momentum behind her, he believes, will only grow in coming weeks. “Castle, Coons — they’re all out of touch,” he says. “We are not getting paid. It’s about country. We are all out here volunteering because we do not want to see this country go down the socialist road.”

“This is a huge statement,” chimes in Don Adams, the head of the Independence Hall Tea Party PAC, which along with the Tea Party Express helped boost O’Donnell’s coffers. “Christine is young, attractive, energetic, and fresh. Mike Castle did not run on the issues — he ran on innuendo, and this is the result. Coons should pay attention to that.”

As the party continues, and the Elks staff cleans up the mini hot dogs and salad bowls, an elderly man approaches me. With a big Irish smile, he reminds me that we met at a tea-party event months prior, when O’Donnell was but a speck on the national political landscape. Tonight, his daughter has become a national political star. “They will listen to her now,” he laughs. “All the questions about your bills, this and that, it is all in the past.” Republicans can only hope that he’s right.

– Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

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