Tea Party supporters hope that what happened in Alaska will repeat itself in Delaware — that a no-name, disregarded Senate candidate wins a stunning upset against the presumptive nominee.
After Joe Miller’s surprise win over Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in the Republican Senate primary, observers started taking a second look at another Tea Party candidate: Christine O’Donnell.
She trails in the polls, but leaders of the Tea Party Express announced they will be barnstorming for her in the two weeks leading up to the Sept. 14 primary. They’ve also spent $250,000 on her behalf.
The Tea Party Express claims its internal polling shows O’Donnell closing in on Castle. They made similar claims about Miller in the Alaska primary.
The biggest question, and likely the determining factor as to whether O'Donnell has a chance against Castle, is what the primary turnout will look like.
As one Democratic strategist in the state pointed out, there hasn't been a competitive Republican primary of any kind in Delaware since the race for governor in 2000. With little to no recent vote history to work from, that leaves pollsters largely guessing when it comes to a turnout model.
Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, which conducts a variety of state- and national-level surveys, said Castle’s poll numbers appear weaker than those of Murkowski.
“If you’re looking for the next possible seismic upset, that would be it,” Jensen said.
Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University, said if O’Donnell is the Republican nominee, Democratic nominee Chris Coons wins the general election.
“If she wins, the Democrats will keep the seat,” Gans said. “A lot of people that would have supported [Castle] aren’t going to support her.”
Democrats point to the elections in Kentucky, Nevada, Alaska, Connecticut and Utah as proof that Tea Party candidates are too extreme for mainstream voters.
“The enthusiasm behind those candidates turns off independents and moderates,” said Brandi Hoffine, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. “You can’t ignore the boomerang effect that’s going to have for our candidates. That enthusiasm is playing out to the detriment of Republicans.”
However, having seen the phenomenon play out in the other states, Castle and Delaware GOP leaders are scrambling to prevent the possibility. Castle has purchased radio and TV ad time for the days before the primary, and is cutting commercials to use.
The Republican Party of Delaware has also taken the rare step of getting involved in a primary race in order to promote Castle over O’Donnell. The party has endorsed Castle, aired a video criticizing O’Donnell on its website and has been issuing statements against her.
State GOP Chairman Tom Ross says he isn’t worried about an upset and that he is simply protecting Republican voters from a poor candidate.
“It’s kind of like a football game — you never want to overlook a candidate,” Ross told The Hill. “But the difference we have here is that you look at Joe Miller, Rand Paul and Sharron Angle, and they all had some kind of standing and respect in the community. But Delaware is a small place, and Christine has no standing in the community here. At least, none that’s positive.”
O'Donnell, in an interview with The Hill last week, said the surprise result in Alaska is proof that she can pull off an upset. She said in a closed primary with a fixed number of voters, the campaign's math isn't as daunting.
"My race can have the same result," O'Donnell said. "We're already ahead of where [Miller] was in the polls. If we can just get that extra push.”
O’Donnell called Castle “wishy-washy,” suggesting that if he wins, he may cooperate with Democrats on an energy bill during a lame-duck Senate session. Whoever wins the general election would be sworn in immediately to succeed interim Sen. Ted Kaufman (D), who replaced Vice President Joe Biden.
National GOP leaders are eyeing the race closely and say Castle seems to be following the lead of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said McCain took his primary opponent, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, seriously enough to fight hard — and win — this summer.
“I hear that Congressman Castle is not ignoring his opponent and has paid a lot of attention to what has happened this spring and is modeling his primary campaign after John McCain's primary campaign,” McConnell said in an ABC News interview that aired Thursday. “And I anticipate people [who do that will] have a better result."
O’Donnell’s other problem may be herself. Poor performances in media interviews continued Thursday with a confrontation with southern Delaware radio host Dan Gaffney. Gaffney and O’Donnell argued over past O’Donnell statements that she had defeated Biden in two of the state’s counties in 2006 and whether she has paid off old campaign debts.
O’Donnell suggested Gaffney was being “paid off” by Castle. The WGMD host responded by shutting off her microphone at one point.