Could Christine O’Donnell actually win in November?

Democrats dismiss 'tea party' favorite Christine O’Donnell, now the GOP Senate nominee, at their peril, say Delaware political observers.

By , Staff writer

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    Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell (l.) talks with her mother, Carole, in between television interviews on Wednesday in Dover, Del.
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As soon as Christine O’Donnell won the Republican Senate primary in Delaware, the pundits pretty much wrote her off as unelectable in November.

Ms. O’Donnell is too conservative, too “tea party,” for a Democratic-leaning state like Delaware, they said. She has a sketchy financial past, including a mortgage default and allegations of unpaid loans and taxes. She reported just $5,800 in earned income between March 2009 and July 2010, according to a Senate financial disclosure form. Her professional background is also eyebrow-raising, at least outside conservative circles. During the 1990s, she worked for a pro-abstinence group and equated masturbation with adultery.

But remember: She has now proven she can win a race. She defeated Rep. Mike Castle (R) – as seasoned a politician as they come, well-known and well-liked statewide.

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Yes, it was the Republican primary in a state where the GOP has many fewer registrants than the Democrats. In the general election on Nov. 2, the tilted playing field and more typical candidate profile of the Democratic nominee, New Castle County executive Chris Coons, makes him the heavy favorite to win Vice President Biden’s old Senate seat.

But Mr. Coons and the Democrats dismiss O’Donnell at their peril, say Delaware political observers.

“There’s an assumption that [O’Donnell’s] no more viable as a candidate than she was in the primary contest with Castle, and look where that ended up,” writes Joseph Pika, a political scientist at the University of Delaware in Newark, in an e-mail. “By all conventional political measures, she should not win, but this is not a conventional political year. Several conditions had to break her way to win the primary and I, among others, did not think they would all break her way – but they did.”

Democrats could be overconfident,” he continues. “Democrats could be overaggressive – she could quickly become a more sympathetic candidate if everyone seems to pile on. If Democrats seem to practice politics as usual – be seen as committing character assassination, for example – they could confirm the basic appeal she has of challenging the establishment and ‘politics as usual.’ ”

But, Mr. Pika notes, O’Donnell is untested in a traditional campaign involving close scrutiny and sustained give and take. “Her qualifications for office are sketchy, at best, and the extra time [six weeks] will probably stress the questions about her background,” he writes. “She ran an insurgent’s campaign based largely on emotion and volunteers. That might be sufficient in Delaware [for victory] but probably not.”

Wilmington, Del., broadcaster Allan Loudell also suggests that Democrats need to take O’Donnell seriously heading into November, despite the political handicappers’ dismissal of her chances.

“She's become a much more polished candidate,” writes Allan Loudell of WDEL-AM radio on his blog. “If you throw the kitchen-sink at her (as the Castle campaign and the Republican establishment did), O'Donnell will accuse you of the ‘politics of destruction.’ ”

Mr. Loudell notes that that phrase is a throwback to Hillary Rodham Clinton (from her days as first lady) and, he writes, it suggests that “while O'Donnell will not betray her followers by trying to shift her ideological views, she WILL make a subtle play for the votes of women beyond her base. If the anti-O'Donnell forces pile on, she'll play victim. You watch.”

In a CNN interview the day before Tuesday's primary, O’Donnell spoke positively of Clinton “in the context of female solidarity and empowerment,” Loudell writes. “A deft move.”

The tea party movement boasts many high-profile women, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota, and Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle. And even though the GOP boasts fewer female candidates for congressional and gubernatorial seats than the Democrats, the imbalance is smaller than usual, and so 2010 has the feel of a “GOP Year of the Woman.” Ms. Angle’s continuing competitiveness against Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, even after being ridiculed nationally for her unorthodox views, provides more evidence that O’Donnell cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Of course, Nevada is more of a swing state than Delaware, and Senator Reid is deeply unpopular at home, but there’s already ample evidence that this is an unusual year. Just ask Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts.

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