Delaware GOP Senate Primary, Who Can Beat Coons?
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Republicans are looking for big gains in November, and candidates getting the most attention have been the ones that tend to be the most conservative. But tiny Delaware tends to go its own way. And this year, its biggest electoral prize may go to Mike Castle, who does not fit that mold. He's a former governor. He's spent 18 years in Congress as a Republican moderate. He's running for the Senate seat Joe Biden vacated when he became vice president. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports on Castle's prospects.
ANDREA SEABROOK: Middletown, Delaware. Boy Scout troop 125 recites the Scout promise.
Group: On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty...
SEABROOK: To get their citizenship in community merit badge, the boys asked Congressman Mike Castle to come talk to them about service.
Representative MIKE CASTLE (Republican, Delaware): As a matter of fact, people forget this, but Delaware for many, many years, was basically run by volunteers.
SEABROOK: It's not a campaign stop, exactly. These Boy Scouts can't vote yet. In any other state, they'd be lucky to get a local politician to come calling. But this is Delaware, the second-smallest state in the country. A big part of its charm, says Castle, is that everybody knows everybody.
Rep. CASTLE: My job is to represent the entire state of Delaware, to try to make the decisions which are in the best interests of the people of Delaware and of the United States of America. And sometimes, that's very difficult. Sometimes we are divided by partisan rifts.
SEABROOK: Castle is rare among lawmakers. He often crosses party lines to sponsor legislation and even vote with the Democrats. His moderate Republican stance makes him a lot less predictable than most.
Rep. CASTLE: I feel you have to look at these issues and break them down and understand exactly what's in legislation. And that's what I do.
SEABROOK: After his meeting with the Boy Scout troop, Castle takes a moment to explain some of his votes over the last year and a half. He voted against the stimulus package in early 2009, but for the recent funding for teachers and Medicaid. He voted against Democrats' health care overhaul, but for increased funding for state children's health insurance programs.
Rep. CASTLE: I have always tried to hold the political concerns off and try to make my decisions based on what I think is going to be most helpful to the people, the state and the country, and then let the politics fall where it may. And that creates a lot of opportunity for my opponents to, you know, make their accusations about me.
SEABROOK: And they do.
Mr. CHRIS COONS (Democratic Senatorial Candidate, Delaware): Mike Castle has represented Delaware in Washington for 18 years now.
SEABROOK: That's Chris Coons, the Democrat running for the Senate seat.
Mr. COONS: He voted against the stimulus bill. He voted against the health care bill. He voted against the jobs bill in its early form. He voted against Wall Street reform in its strong, early form.
SEABROOK: Coons' strategy is to make sure Democrats in this state know if they vote for Castle - no matter how moderate he is - they'll be voting for a Republican and against the Obama-Biden White House.
Mr. COONS: This is Joe Biden's home state, and the seat I'm running for is the seat that Joe Biden held for us for 36 years. And most folks in Delaware voted for change in 2008 and are wondering why there hasn't been more progress.
SEABROOK: If anyone should be hit by the voter's anti-incumbent mood, says Coons, it should be Castle. And that's one place where Coons agrees with the woman who's challenging Castle in the primary, a feisty young Republican named Christine O'Donnell.
Ms. CHRISTINE O'DONNELL (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Delaware): Mike Castle is a Republican in name only, because the R behind his name doesn't stand for something.
SEABROOK: O'Donnell is endorsed by a couple of Tea Party groups, has run twice before, so more people know her. And she says the problem is that Castle agrees with Democrats too much.
Ms. O'DONNELL: This past summer, he's voted with Obama and Pelosi on every one of their major bills. He's even coauthored some of them.
SEABROOK: O'Donnell says in the coming primary, which is only open to registered Republicans, Castle's going to have trouble proving his conservative stripes.
Ms. O'DONNELL: Especially in this political climate of anti-incumbency, and an upsurge of insurgent candidates, challengers winning, I don't see how we could lose.
SEABROOK: Then again, Delaware can be unpredictable - no party has a majority, and independents regularly swing elections here. Maybe that's why Castle does so well, and why he thinks it's good to take flack from both his left and his right.
Rep. CASTLE: I can't say that I enjoy it much. But it gives a little bit of balance and a little bit of evidence to the fact that I am taking more independent, more middle-of-the road positions than some others are.
SEABROOK: There's nothing like having your opponents make your point for you.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News.
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