Primaries Take Delaware, D.C. In A New Direction

The Tea Party won in Delaware. D.C.’s incumbent mayor lost to a candidate many deemed less “arrogant.” The GOP is gearing up for midterm elections, but not in the position of strength they’d hoped for. Host Michel Martin talks with NPR’s political editor Ken Rudin and Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson to recap Tuesday’s primary elections around the country, and to look ahead to the fall races.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Later in the program, it's Hispanic heritage month; and since primaries were yesterday, we thought we'd kick it off by talking about some current issues on the political scene that are front and center for Hispanic voters. We have two members of Congress with us.

And, later, he was a celebrated photographer, who took some of the most iconic images of the civil rights struggle: Ernest C. Withers. But now it seems that he was also informing on the Civil Rights Movement. We'll ask a journalist who's written about the civil rights era to put it into context for us. That's all coming up.

But, first, we're going to talk about the last of this election's primaries in the run-up to that all important midterm election in November. We'll talk about that stunning win by the Sarah Palin backed Tea Party Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell in Delaware; who beat, not only a very well known moderate Republican, but also the GOP establishment itself, which fought her from the start.

Ms. CHRISTINE O'DONNELL (Tea Party Senate Candidate, Delaware): I didn't count on the establishment to win the primary, I'm not counting on them to win the general, I'm counting on the voters of Delaware. And we're gonna work hard to make sure that we take our message to them.

MARTIN: We'll also hear how Congressman Charles Rangel of New York pulled out a win in Harlem, despite facing ethics charges on Capitol Hill. And the nation's capital loses its once popular mayor and most likely its nationally renowned school superintendent - after only one term. Was it his personality or her policies? We will ask.

I'm joined by Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. He joins us from the offices of The Post in Washington. Also with us, NPR's political editor, our political junkie Ken Rudin. He's with us from St. Louis Public Radio. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. EUGENE ROBINSON (Columnist, The Washington Post): Good to be here, Michel.

KEN RUDIN: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: It was a late night, wasn't it? So both of you, still a little bit bleary-eyed.

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, we are.

MARTIN: Let's go to the Delaware primary first. Republicans hoping to offer a strong candidate to challenge for the seat that now Vice President Joe Biden held for a very long time. Did the Republicans get that strong candidate, Ken Rudin?

RUDIN: Well, they got something - something they didn't expect. The strong candidate they all expected to get was Mike Castle who's been in office forever. He's a former governor, the longest serving House member in Delaware history - very popular with Democrats, but this is a Republican primary. And Tea Party folks and conservatives are not out to reward establishment figures. We saw that in Alaska with Lisa Murkowski. We saw that elsewhere. And we saw it in Delaware.

Mike Castle tried to remind voters what he's done in all his years in Congress. But Christine O'Donnell and the Tea Party folks said, look, that's not good enough. We don't want the politics as usual. The old ways are gone and we're here to change things.

MARTIN: What were her issues? What was the key to her success?

RUDIN: Well, basically big government, but mostly it was a battle with the establishment. The establishment backed Mike Castle from day one, even though, I mean calling him as a RINO, a Republican in Name Only is generous, 'cause he actually is probably at least one of the most liberal members - Republicans in Congress. There's no question about that.

And while we keep talking about how much the Tea Party hates Obama and hates the socialism that's in Washington, blah, blah, blah, they really have - they have utter contempt for the Republican establishment as well. So it's a really - it's a real wild card, what the Tea Party portends for November.

MARTIN: You know, Eugene, another Tea Party question - the victory in New York state, by Tea Party candidate Carl Paladino over Rick Lazio, who of course had contested against Senator Hillary Clinton in the first time she ran for Senate. Now, the Democrats seem almost as happy about this as the Republicans do, why is that?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, it's another sign that, while the Tea Party may present a challenge to the Democratic Party, it seems to at the moment present a greater challenge to the Republican Party. And the question is whether these Tea Party backed candidates like Paladino and like Christine O'Donnell are viable in general elections. Democrats believe they're going to win seats and perhaps governorships that they might have lost to more conventional Republicans. Because, you know, O'Donnell, for example, is pro-life and anti-gun control. Mike Castle, who would've been the Republican opponent for Democrat Chris Coons in Delaware, is pro-choice and pro-gun control. And that's more where Delaware is. So, you know, the Democrats are actually smiling this morning.

MARTIN: But Christine O'Donnell, I mean being pro-life and being against gun control, so is Kirsten Gillibrand in New York. So why is she being portrayed as such a fringe candidate? And what is it that occasioned such a sense of relief on the part of the Democrats, about their ability to hold onto the Senate?

I mean I think it should be said that, you know, part of the calculation here is that the Democrats are saying this makes it much less likely that the Senate - that the Republicans will be able to retake the Senate. But why are they saying that?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, she does - she polls terribly, at the moment, against the Democratic opponent Coons, whereas Mike Castle polled very well against him. She - it's her background, basically. She's been a - I suppose you'd call her a kind gadfly figure who has not been an office holder in the way that Castle has. And who is - Karl Rove has referred to her as nutty. And she has said things in past that were kind of nutty.

And so, now she's having the last laugh this morning, of course, and saying that Karl Rove is eating crow. But the sense is that she is just too out there to be elected by the silver(ph)-minded voters of Delaware. Now, we'll see whether that's true because she really did very well in the primary. And people said she couldn't do that either.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us - just one second, Ken - if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the results of several primaries around the country. I'm talking with Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson and NPR's political editor Ken Rudin. Ken?

RUDIN: I agree with Gene on almost everything he said. However, if we're talking about polling, I mean, just a couple of weeks ago, Mike Castle had a gazillion point lead over O'Donnell. So polling, obviously, in this very bizarre and unpredictable year of 2010, goes out the window. And as far - first of all, I think we also mentioned that Kirsten Gillibrand is pro-life. She's not. She is pro-choice.

MARTIN: She is pro-choice. You're right. Thank you for correcting that. You're absolutely right.

RUDIN: And, of course, and she has moved a little bit on the gun issue when she went from an upstate New York congresswoman to become a statewide senator.

MARTIN: But there are pro-life Democrats. Forgive me for misrepresenting her position.

RUDIN: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: But there are pro-life Democrats. So that in itself does not make her

RUDIN: Right. But I mean as far as what the Delaware electorate is - and I agree with you - but nobody expected Scott Brown to win in Massachusetts as well. And that was the beginning of what seemed to be sign that the Tea Party has bigger influence than anybody suspected. But here's the thing about Christine O'Donnell. It's not that she's pro-life or anti - or pro-gun, it's just that some of her stuff is just wacky. That the fact that she thought she was, you know, being followed in the bushes - people out to get her and they're hiding in the bushes.

And that she graduated from college years ago. As it turned out, she only graduated - she only got her graduate diploma a day before she announced her candidacy. So there's just so many personal things about Christine O'Donnell that takes a clear opportunity for the Republican Party to pick up a seat in the Senate and give it - and gives it back to the Democrats to hold.

MARTIN: Well, let's move on here. We have a couple more races to talk about in the time that we have left. Let's talk about - speaking of New York, let's play a clip from Congressman Charlie Rangel, from last night. He's facing ethics charges as we talked about, on the program, and a trial in the House of Representatives. And he coasted to victory in the primary. Here's what he had to say.

Representative CHARLIE RANGEL (Democrat, New York): President Obama needs people like me more than ever.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Rep. RANGEL: I say this: During a period of fiscal crisis, the moral treatment of newcomers in this country, the wealthiest people in this country haven't(ph) been given tax cuts. That doesn't help the economy. I go back to tell the president, you don't need all those Republicans.

MARTIN: So Ken, what was the key here? I mean he ran against a crowded field, including Adam Clayton Powell IV, the state assemblyman whose - his father, Adam Clayton Powell III, lost his seat to

RUDIN: No, Junior, actually, Junior.

MARTIN: Junior. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. lost his seat - sorry, hard to keep up - lost his seat to Rangel, and also his former chief of staff ran against him as well. What was the key here?

RUDIN: Well, the key was Charlie Rangel's 40 years in Congress. I mean you could talk about the 13 ethics charges he's up against and there may or may not be a public trial in September. It's very possible it won't go to a lame duck session. And you know, but he was never in trouble at the ballot box. And plus the fact that for all the - the name that Adam Clayton Powell brings, I mean I think Charlie Rangel's campaign headquarters was on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard.

So you know, the name is gigantic in Harlem. But Adam Clayton Powell IV was a flawed candidate. First of all, there were four or five candidates running against Rangel, but Powell himself was a very undistinguished, indistinguished member of the state assembly who had other personal scrapes. So for all the ethics problems that Charlie Rangel has in Washington - basically back home he was never gonna be defeated in the primary, certainly not by a divided field like that.

MARTIN: Gene Robinson, you wrote about how you felt that the charges against him were overblown anyway.

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I thought that - right. People always equated the charges against Rangel with the charges against Maxine Waters, you know, two African-American veteran members of Congress who are facing ethics charges. I've read the Rangel charges in the response and I thought that - what I found missing was an allegation that he had done anything improper for personal gain, that he had sought to enrich himself in any way, and so that's what I wrote. But I agree with Ken. I don't think he was ever in trouble in his Harlem district. I think he was always gonna win that primary.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting? Gene Robinson, stick with me here. We only have about a minute left. The community activist Joyce Johnson got the surprise backing of The New York Times editorial board in that race. It shows that clearly The Times board didn't have very much influence here. And in Washington, the candidate favored by The Washington Post editorial board, strongly backed incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty, mainly because of his moves on education reform, and he was bested by what was considered a surprising candidate a couple of months ago, Vince Gray, the city council president. Tell us a little bit about that in the time we have left we're very - only about a minute left.

Mr. ROBINSON: Yes. Basically I think Adrian Fenty was defeated by himself. And he - his style as mayor was aggressive, abrasive. His school's chancellor was aggressive, abrasive. He delivered results. She delivered results. And he felt that delivering results was enough. He neglected his base. He didn't pay attention to the people who sent him into office. And they turned him out.

MARTIN: To be continued. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was with us from the offices at The Post. NPR's political editor Ken Rudin was with us from St. Louis. Gentlemen, thank you both so much.

RUDIN: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thank you.

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