Will GOP leaders take up 'Christine O'Donnell for Senate'?

In a stinging loss for the GOP, Michael Castle lost to Christine O'Donnell in Senate primary race. Now, state Republicans face a common problem in this primary election season: reconciling with a 'tea party'-backed candidate for the general election.

Rob Carr/AP
Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, standing, talks with her father Daniel (r.) in between television interviews Wednesday in Dover, Delaware.

Christine O’Donnell powered to victory over Rep. Mike Castle (R) in Delaware’s GOP Senate primary despite active opposition from the Republican establishment. Will her party unite behind her now that she faces an uphill battle against Democrat Chris Coons in the general election?

After all, the party establishment was so vociferous in its support of her primary opponent that Ms. O’Donnell accused it of “Republican cannibalism." O'Donnell used such pointed and personal language about Castle that he has called it the worst campaign he ever endured. He won’t be endorsing O’Donnell in the general election, a campaign spokesman said following his loss.

But it’s usually not good for a national party to look like it’s kicking a duly nominated candidate to the curb – even one that complicates GOP dreams of winning back the Senate. On Wednesday top Washington Republicans began publicly to closing ranks behind O’Donnell. National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas issued a statement embracing her – and wrote her an NRSC check for $42,000.

That’s the maximum the party committee can legally give any individual candidate in this election cycle.

“I reached out to Christine this morning, and as I have conveyed to all of our nominees, I offered her my personal congratulations and let her know that she has our support,” said Sen. Cornyn.

This primary season a series of contests between "tea party"-backed figures and Republican establishment choices has left a residue of bitterness in some states. In Florida, the choice of the GOP hierarchy for the gubernatorial nomination, state Attorney General Bill Collum, has refused to endorse the man who beat him, the insurgent (and wealthy) candidate Rick Scott. Similarly, in Arizona, ex-Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a tea party favorite, has yet to endorse the candidate who defeated him in the state’s Senate primary – former presidential candidate John McCain.

In Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who lost her primary to the tea party-backed Fairbanks attorney Joe Miller, may yet run in the general election as a write-in candidate. She has said she will make an announcement about her future later this week.

Tea party organizations are in some ways threatening to the GOP powers-that-be. The tea party movement arose in part as a reaction to perceived big-spending Washington policies – and that means big spending that occurred during the Bush administration, as well as under President Obama. While there is no one ”tea party,” and the grass roots movement boasts no recognizable hierarchy, its adherents have brought energy and a sense of mission to a party flattened by losses in 2008. That’s something that Republicans in Washington ignore at their peril.

Christine O’Donnell said as much in a number of her post-victory interviews.

“When we started gaining momentum and we started gaining credibility in this race, it made the Republican establishment look like lazy people who did not care about their principles,” said O’Donnell on ABC. “But I hope that we can put that behind us.”

However, for GOP Senate leaders, O’Donnell’s victory still is something of a personal disappointment. Delaware is a fairly blue state – it has 17 percent more registered Democrats than Republicans – and Rep. Castle, a moderate who won 11 statewide elections during his career, is seen as an easy winner in the general election.

That win would have represented an easy step for Republicans in their climb toward a net gain of 10 Senate seats, which would give them control of the chamber.

O’Donnell pulled off a primary victory that few saw coming, so perhaps it is unwise to write her off just yet. But her sharp edges and tea party conservatism may have much less appeal to the Delaware electorate as a whole than they did to Republican primary voters.

The Democratic candidate for Senate, Chris Coons, is the executive of New Castle County, which includes Wilmington and is far and away the most populous of the state’s three counties. On Wednesday political experts all over Washington were all but addressing him as “Sen. Coons.”

“National Republicans harbor no illusions that they can make O’Donnell a viable candidate,” wrote veteran analyst Charlie Cook on Wednesday in his political report. “With Delaware off the board for the GOP, the possibility that they can net the ten seats needed to win the [Senate] majority becomes significantly harder. While it is still mathematically possible, winning Delaware was an important part of the equation.”

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