JONATHAN COHN SEPTEMBER 13, 2010
Among Tuesday’s primaries is a suddenly red-hot contest in usually mild-mannered Delaware, where Republicans have been counting on picking up Joe Biden’s old Senate seat since the day Congressman Mike Castle announced for the race. But now Castle is suddenly looking vulnerable to a right-wing uprising which, in turn, could make Democratic candidate Chris Coons the front-runner going into November. If that happens, Democrats hoping to defend the Senate will become less dependent on wins by vulnerable incumbents like Patty Murray, Barbara Boxer, and Russ Feingold.
To cold-blooded political junkies, the idea of Delaware Republicans tossing Castle is nuts. He’s led every poll from the beginning, has won no fewer than twelve statewide elections in Delaware, and has demonstrated appeal to independents and Democrats. His primary opponent, Christine O’Donnell, is an erratic, if very energetic, conservative Catholic religio-political activist mainly known for outspoken views about sex that would have been considered a bit too rigid in 1950. She also holds the distinction of having unsuccessfully sued a right-wing think tank for gender discrimination after it fired her, and she possesses a history of personal financial woes that would not normally appeal to the pay-your-own-damn-mortgage Tea Party crowd. But she’s had a lot of exposure on conservative national media, and managed to win the GOP nomination against Biden in 2008, garnering 35 percent of the vote that November.
More importantly, Castle is far more vulnerable to the deadly RINO charge than most of the Republican politicians who’ve been given that designation by conservatives. He voted for the House climate-change bill. He’s crossed the gun lobby. And he’s pro-choice. As for association with the much-suspect establishment, Castle has been a statewide official in Delaware for 30 years, as Lieutenant Governor, Governor, and at-large congressman. He went from Dover to the U.S. House in 1992, in an apparent arrangement with Tom Carper generally referred to as “The Switch,” which enabled term-limited Governor Castle to run for Carper’s House seat while Carper (now the state’s senior senator) ran for governor. For Tea Party types, in other words, Castle bears many Signs of the Beast. And O’Donnell’s piled on by rather unsubtly questioning his masculinity, if not his sexual orientation.
Nobody gave O’Donnell much of a chance until very recently, but the stunning victory of Joe Miller over Senator Lisa Murkowski in Alaska seems to have convinced the Tea Party Express to deploy heavily in Delaware on O’Donnell’s behalf, followed, at the last possible moment, by endorsements from the NRA, Sarah Palin, and Jim DeMint. It’s true that these latter worthies weighed in too late to offer anything other than moral suasion, but it has increased the perception that O’Donnell is a hot property. And late Sunday night, Public Policy Polling, which has been tracking Delaware opinion for a while, released a survey showing O’Donnell moving ahead of Castle among likely primary voters by a 47-44 margin, with 55 percent saying Castle is “too liberal.”
Any way you slice it, the tightening Delaware Republican race is pretty good news for Chris Coons, who led O’Donnell 44-37 in an August PPP poll, and has run well enough against Castle to benefit from the bad feelings generated by O’Donnell if Castle survives.
Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that Delaware is also one of the rare places where Democrats think they have a good chance of picking up a House seat: Mike Castle’s House seat, as it happens, where former Lieutenant Governor John Carney, who narrowly lost the 2008 gubernatorial primary to Jack Markell, looked very strong in an August poll against the two Republicans fighting for the nomination to face him.
If Delaware does throw a monkey wrench into Republican plans for control of Congress, no one would be happier than the vice president of the United States, whose first elected office 40 years ago was to the New Castle County Council, then represented in the state senate by Mike Castle, and now supervised by County Executive Chris Coons. Delaware is a very cozy place politically, where Christine O’Donnell stands out like the crazy out-of-state cousin who moved in and wouldn’t leave.