Another Tea Party Win? All Eyes Are On Delaware

The 2010 political primary season largely wraps up Tuesday with contests in seven states and the District of Columbia.

No race is being watched more carefully than the bitter, rollicking Republican Senate nomination battle in Delaware.

Christine O'Donnell. Tea Party favorite in Delaware's GOP Senate primary.

Christine O'Donnell, the Tea Party favorite in Delaware's GOP Senate primary. Rob Carr/Associated Press hide caption

itoggle caption Rob Carr/Associated Press

There, Tea Party Express-backed insurgent Christine O’Donnell, who also has been endorsed by 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, threatens not only the decades-long political career of state party favorite Rep. Mike Castle but also the party's chances in the fall.

It's a scenario that echoes recent Republican Senate primaries in Alaska, Nevada and Kentucky, where Tea Party support helped long-shot conservatives defeat party establishment favorites.

But the effect in Delaware, a far more politically moderate state, would perhaps be more dramatic than in the states that produced conservative GOP candidates Sharron Angle in Nevada, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Joe Miller in Alaska.

"If O'Donnell pulls it off, it would be the end of the Republican Party here as we know it," says conservative Dan Gaffney, host of a news radio program on WGMD in southern Delaware and a onetime O'Donnell fan.

"This is a major shift for the party in the state," he says, "where there's always rumblings about the party elites controlling what happens."

Poll Shows Virtual Tie

A survey by Public Policy Polling released in the closing days of the campaign shows O'Donnell, 41, and Castle, 70, in a dead heat for the right to run under the party's banner in the fall.

Rep. Michael Castle (R-DE)

Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, a Republican Gail Burton/Associated Press hide caption

itoggle caption Gail Burton/Associated Press

Other surveys also show that in hypothetical matchups, O'Donnell trails Democratic nominee Chris Coons, while Castle, endorsed by his party at its convention, leads Coons. Survey averages at Pollster.com have Castle leading Coons by nearly 12 percentage points. A Rasmussen Poll last week had Coons, the Democrat, leading O’Donnell by 11 percentage points, with 9 percent undecided. Coons, 47, is serving his second term as New Castle county executive.

As the GOP nomination race has tightened, the intraparty battle has gotten uglier — and has nationalized.

Conservative bloggers and commentators across the country, some in increasingly nasty asides, have debated the merits of embracing the insurgent (O'Donnell) or siding with a known but moderate longtime politician (Castle) who likely stands a better chance of helping the GOP reach a majority in the Senate this fall.

Amy Kremer, director of the Tea Party Express' grass roots and coalitions, told NPR last week that she believes those who dismiss O'Donnell's chances in November are ignoring a mood sweeping the country.

"Who would have ever thought that a Republican would take a seat held by a Kennedy for over 40 years?" she said, referring to Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts after Sen. Edward Kennedy died. "We never thought it was possible."

Anxious to hear the results of Tuesday's voting? Here are the poll closing times:

— Delaware: 8 p.m. EDT

— Maryland: 8 p.m. EDT

— Massachusetts: 8 p.m. EDT

— New Hampshire: Closing times vary by community. All polls will be closed by 8 p.m. EDT.

— New York: 9 p.m. EDT

— Rhode Island, 9 p.m. EDT

—  Washington, D.C.: 8 p.m. EDT

— Wisconsin: 8 p.m. local; 9 p.m. EDT

"That was a wake-up call about this movement and what is happening across America," she said.

Party Pushback

But what’s different in Delaware is that, unlike in states where the Tea Party has had previous success, Republican leaders who support Castle are fighting back hard.

O'Donnell's own past — including unpaid debt and misrepresenting the outcome of her last shot at the Senate (she falsely claimed to have won two of the state's three counties in her 2008 general election run against now-Vice President Biden) — has also given opponents in her own party ample ammunition.

Gaffney, her onetime supporter, says he soured on O’Donnell because he believes she hasn't adequately answered questions about her finances, and he's uncomfortable with what he describes as the "attack dogs" running her campaign.

When pressed on-air by Gaffney recently for answers on her 2008 electoral claims and about her past financial problems, O’Donnell accused the radio host of being in cahoots with Castle.

O'Donnell, a marketing consultant, has never held elective office but has twice run for her party's Senate nomination, finishing third in the 2006 GOP primary, and gaining the nomination in 2008 without opposition. She lost to Biden, who captured 65 percent of the vote to her 35 percent.

An article posted on the conservative Weekly Standard’s website over the weekend detailed a $6.95 million wrongful termination lawsuit O'Donnell brought against her former employer, a Delaware-based conservative nonprofit organization. She subsequently dropped the suit and has declined to comment on the issue.

The article also pointed to a story on Saturday in Delaware's The News Journal that reported O'Donnell was sued by her alma mater, Fairleigh Dickinson University, for unpaid tuition that totaled $4,000. She has since paid the debt and received her diploma this month.

And Delaware Republican Party Chairman Tom Ross has come out swinging, mincing no words in challenging O'Donnell. He has referred to her as "unhinged," not fit to be "dogcatcher," and has unleashed a press campaign that seeks to characterize O'Donnell as a "perennial candidate" with a "checkered past." Kremer of Tea Party Express on Monday called the issues "irrelevant" and a smokescreen to "cover up for Mike Castle's very liberal record."

Ross told NPR last week that O'Donnell's support is largely from outside Delaware, generated by the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express.

O'Donnell Backers

Supporters of O'Donnell see a prime opportunity to unseat a Republican who they believe has abandoned the party on issues ranging from climate change and federal spending to abortion and gun rights.

Last week, conservative radio talker and writer Mark Levin characterized Castle as "the most liberal, or one of the most liberal" House members and someone who has "relished his big votes against his own party."

Levin acknowledges that O'Donnell has "some personal financial issues ... among other things" but says that he does not seek perfection in his candidates.

O'Donnell, he says, gives the party a chance to "defeat a very liberal Republican in a Republican primary in a state that is not red but not dark blue." Castle, he notes, a former governor, has been in office since the mid-1960s.

Said Palin, in endorsing O’Donnell: "Why sit back and try to play it safe, and be politically correct in the machine and blow an opportunity?"

A Worried Party

Gaffney says he aligned himself with O'Donnell in 2006 when she was a write-in candidate for the party’s Senate nomination and had aligned herself with Christian conservatives.

"Now, those are not the people surrounding her or running her campaign,"  he says.

But whoever is behind her campaign, whatever they’re doing at least appears to be working.

"The level of noise from the outside Tea Party Express people is so great that it's hard to get a read on what's real and what's not," Gaffney says. "But she clearly has momentum going into Tuesday's primary." Kremer said Monday that O'Donnell "has the wind at her back."

Delaware’s primary is closed, meaning that only the 182,796 state residents who had registered as Republicans by Aug. 21 are eligible to vote. A peek at what the winner faces come fall? Democrats statewide currently number 292,738.

Meanwhile, The Other Primaries

Though the Delaware contest has dominated much of the political coverage going into Tuesday’s races, there are also interesting matchups in other states, including New York, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C.

Carl Paladino, GOP candidate for governor in New York.

Carl Paladino, who's chasing the GOP nomination for governor in New York. Tim Roske/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Tim Roske/AP

NEW YORK

The race to watch in the Empire State is the GOP primary for governor, where the Tea Party is also stirring things up.

Rick Lazio, GOP candidate for governor in New York.

Former Rep. Rick Lazio, candidate for governor in New York. Mary Altaffer/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Mary Altaffer/AP

A new poll shows that millionaire developer Carl Paladino of Buffalo, a 64-year-old Tea Party favorite who has never held elective office, has pulled even with former four-term Rep. Rick Lazio. Lazio, 52, has the support of the state’s GOP establishment.

The winner is expected to face 52-year-old Democrat Andrew Cuomo, the state's attorney general and son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, in the fall.

Embattled Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, who has represented his Harlem district for four decades, faces a tough primary challenge from Adam Clayton Powell IV. Rangel has been weakened by a House ethics investigation that resulted in 13 pending charges against him.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

In New Hampshire, another battle involving the Tea Party, the establishment and Palin is playing out in the Republican Senate primary contest for the seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Judd Gregg after three decades.

Front-runner Kelly Ayotte, a former state attorney general, has been buoyed by the party’s establishment and a Palin endorsement. But she faces a stiff challenge from Ovide Lamontagne, a former gubernatorial candidate.

Lamontagne has the support of the Tea Party and conservative Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

Also competing closely is wealthy businessman Bill Binnie, a moderate on social issues, including abortion. Long-shot candidate businessman Jim Bender is also on the ballot.

Mayor Adrian Fenty (right) and challenger Vincent Gray, Democratic contenders in Washington, D.C.

City Council Chairman Vince Gray (left) is challenging Mayor Adrian Fenty in Washington's Democratic primary. Jacquelyn Martin/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The winner will face Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes in November.

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Surveys of registered Democrats in the nation's capital suggest that one-term incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty may be on the verge of losing to City Council Chairman Vince Gray, in a mayoral primary that has divided largely along racial lines even though both men are African-American. Surveys show Gray doing better among blacks than Fenty.

Fenty, who was swept into office four years ago, has undertaken a controversial overhaul of the schools, wresting school control from the council and concessions from the unions. But his polarizing school Superintendent Michelle Rhee, school layoffs, and poor relations with council colleagues and African-American groups have given team player Gray a surprising opportunity.

Primaries are also being held in Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

After Tuesday, there's one more state holding primaries. Hawaii's contests are scheduled for Saturday.

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