GOP Candidates Face Primary Challenges

Voters in seven states are going to the polls Tuesday — in the last major primary of the election season. One of the most closely watched races is for a Senate seat in Delaware, where nine-term Republican Mike Castle is facing a tough challenge from Tea Party conservative Christine O'Donnell.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

Voters in seven states head to the polls today in the last major primaries of the election season. So far this year, Tea Party-backed candidates have beaten Republican Party favorites in five Senate races: in Kentucky, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and Alaska. Today, one of the most closely watched races is for a Senate seat in Delaware, where nine-term Republican House member Mike Castle is facing a tough challenge from Tea Party conservative Christine O'Donnell.

NPR's Don Gonyea has been talking to voters in Dover, Delaware, and he joins us now. Hey there, Don.

DON GONYEA: Hey, David.

GREENE: So recent polls show a pretty tight race between O'Donnell and the veteran Mike Castle. I mean based on what you've heard getting around and talking to voters today does that seem on target to you?

GONYEA: It seems like it could be very close. Again, I've just stopped at a couple of polling places. One in Middletown, I talked to a Mike Castle supporter, who said, hey, Castle's been a good congressman. He was a fine governor before that. And even if he isn't as conservative as she would have liked, she said he's a fine public servant. That is the basic Castle pitch, right there.

But O'Donnell supporters are conservatives, who today told me that for the first time in this state, they feel they have a real rock solid conservative that they can vote for. And plenty of them also paint Castle as a career politician. As you said, he's been in the House a long time, and they just think he doesn't represent their values.

GREENE: And I always thought Delaware was known for its friendlier, gentle politics, but this race has - it sounds like it's gotten very nasty. And I understand that the robo-calls have been flying all around today from both sides?

GONYEA: Yeah. Nice is not a word to describe...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: ...this campaign. The calls are out there today. First, there's one from Sarah Plain. She's O'Donnell's biggest booster, of course. She is hoping to repeat the success of that Alaska primary where her candidate, the underdog, Joe Miller, knocked off Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski. So here's what a lot of Delaware Republican voters are hearing on their phones, in voicemail today. This is a phone call for O'Donnell from Palin.

Ms. SARAH PALIN (Former Republican Governor, Alaska): The wave of positive change can really sweep across our land with the election of constitutional conservatives, like Christine, who promise to use common sense and rein in federal government spending. I can relate to the vicious personal attacks on Christine and can tell you it's sad to see the establishment's desperation in this.

GONYEA: So it's obviously vintage Palin, backing what she and plenty of others, including critics, see as a kindred spirit in Christine O'Donnell.

GREENE: But the Republican Castle has his own calls out to try to win this primary?

GONYEA: Yeah, and here's what's interesting. These calls today are coming not from the Castle campaign but from the Delaware Republican Party. So the party is going after a candidate in its own primary. Their point is that O'Donnell is not a serious person, that she's not qualified, and that there are other problems. The voice on this call that you're about to hear is Kristin Murray. She identifies herself as a former campaign manager for O'Donnell from the 2008 U.S. Senate race, which O'Donnell lost to Joe Biden.

Ms. KRISTIN MURRAY (Former Campaign Manager, Christine O'Donnell's 2008 Senate Campaign): I got into politics because I believe in conservative values and wanted to make a difference. But I was shocked to learn that Christine O'Donnell is no conservative. You see, this is her third Senate race in five years. As O'Donnell's manager, I found out that she was living on campaign donations, using them for rent and personal expenses, while leaving her workers unpaid and piling up thousands in debt.

GONYEA: So, again, that comes from the party attacking her. It feeds the O'Donnell narrative, too, though, that the establishment is out to get her, but again, the Republican Party knows that polling shows that they win the seat in November if Mike Castle is the nominee. That's what they believe, and they believe they lose if O'Donnell is.

GREENE: All right, now, Don, you're traveling around the country follow these races, traveling from one state to another as always. That's NPR's Don Gonyea speaking to us from Dover, Delaware. Thanks, Don.

GONYEA: Thank you.

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