'Tea party' on a roll: Can Christine O'Donnell win in Delaware?

After toppling moderate Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, the 'tea party' it setting its sights on Delaware. Tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell is challenging moderate US Rep. Mike Castle in this month's GOP US Senate primary.

Christine O'Donnell addresses the crowd during a meeting of the '9/12 Delaware Patriots' at the Bowers Beach Fire Hall in Bowers, Del., Wednesday. O'Donnell will face Republican US Rep. Mike Castle in a primary election in her bid for the Senate seat formerly held by now Vice President Joe Biden.
Gail Burton/ AP
Delaware Republican Senate candidate, Rep. Mike Castle, at the Festival Hispano in Millsboro, Del., last month.

Following its recent upset win in Alaska’s US Senate Republican primary, the "tea party" movement is focusing on Delaware. There, the GOP is scrambling to head off tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell in her challenge to US Rep. Mike Castle.

Given the dogfight that’s ensued, it’s reminiscent of humorist Finley Peter Dunne’s best-known aphorism: “Politics ain’t beanbag.”

Of Ms. O’Donnell, state GOP party chair Tom Ross says: “She's not a viable candidate for any office in the state of Delaware.”

“She could not be elected dog catcher,” Mr. Ross told the Associated Press.

Well, maybe. O’Donnell does carry some political baggage – questions about personal finances and when, exactly, she got her degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

The Castle campaign has put up a website called “The Real Christine O’Donnell.” It has vowed not to eschew attack ads the way Sen. Lisa Murkowski did in her losing reelection GOP primary bid against tea party favorite Joe Miller in Alaska. And it has called on neighboring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – a rising GOP star – for a testimony to Castle’s conservative credentials.

If this were a normal political year, Congressman Castle – a moderate Republican who’s held statewide office for 25 years and easily won reelection – could be expected to be a shoo-in for the general election, where the Republican candidate will face Democratic nominee Christopher Coons, executive of New Castle County.

There is no incumbent running to fill the seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden; former Senate staffer Ted Kaufman is a placeholder who promised not to run for a full term.

But this is far from a normal midterm election year. The glow is off President Obama, the economy continues to bump along, and an unusual number of likely voters are inclined to punish incumbents of both parties.

Reflecting (and helping generate) this political tumult is the tea party movement. It rattled the GOP with the nomination of Sharron Angle in Nevada as well as with Murkowski’s loss in Alaska. It played a role in Sen. Bob Bennett’s primary defeat in Utah and in Florida Gov. Charlie Christ’s forced jump from the GOP to independent status in the US Senate race there.

Castle’s problem in Delaware is similar to Senator Bennett's problem in Utah: He’s not a fire-breathing conservative among Republicans – much less a pox-on-both-your-houses tea partyer.

“Mike Castle is so liberal he voted for Barack Obama's agenda nearly 60 percent of the time,” claims the rough cut of a Tea Party Express ad on behalf of O’Donnell obtained by Atlantic online. “He voted for the bailouts. He voted for the antibusiness cap-and-trade. He supports in-state tuition for illegal aliens. And he even opposes repealing Obama's health-care scheme.”

“It’s time to retire this liberal RINO!” (Republican in name only), declares the Tea Party Express fundraising ad for O’Donnell.

According to a Tea Party Express poll released Thursday, O’Donnell trails Castle by just 2 percentage points.

There are questions about the accuracy of the poll. Still, writes Jeremy Jacobs at National Journal’s Hotline Oncall, “These new numbers suggest that Castle is significantly more vulnerable than originally believed.”

It remains an uphill battle for O’Donnell. Castle’s attack ads, plus help from the national party and other supporters, undoubtedly will illuminate her negatives. And unlike Joe Miller in Alaska, she does not (yet) have Sarah Palin’s endorsement.

The Tea Party Express expects to spend $250,000 on ads for O’Donnell running up to the Sept. 14 primary election. If Castle is defeated, the tea party movement will be able to notch one more in its growing list of political victories.

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