Delaware Senate race against Castle last chance for Tea Party GOP primary upset

WILMINGTON, Del. — The Delaware Senate primary is shaping up as the toughest test yet of the Tea Party — a movement that has defeated two powerful Republican senators this primary season.

Tuesday also marks the final chance for a Tea Party-backed candidate to topple a GOP incumbent ahead of the November election.

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Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), one of the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s (NRSC) top Senate recruits, is facing the possibility of defeat at the hands of conservative commentator Christine O’Donnell, who appears to have the wind at her back despite questions about her past.

Campaigning on Sunday in Wilmington, Castle appeared to be feeling the pressure.

“We’re not taking anything for granted here,” he told The Hill. 

He said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who was a surprise victim of the Tea Party movement in August, phoned him shortly after her primary loss to warn him that the group would come after him hard.

The Tea Party Express has spent some $300,000 on TV and radio ads on O’Donnell’s behalf, hitting Castle for his centrist voting record and support for cap-and-trade. O’Donnell has warned that Castle would be a rubber stamp for the Senate Democratic leadership in the upcoming lame-duck session should he win in November.

It’s at least part of what has led the centrist lawmaker to sound a more conservative note ahead of the primary.

“I personally would not support cap-and-trade if it were to come up in the lame-duck,” Castle emphasized Sunday. “But I suspect [Democrats] won’t be able to put together any kind of energy bill, much less cap-and-trade.”

Castle also slammed the Democratic leadership in Congress and President Obama for pursuing a partisan agenda in Washington. 

“The basic problem is that the Obama administration has decided to move everything forward with just Democrats,” said Castle. “I don’t think that’s made for good legislation.”

While Castle emphasized the importance of extending the Bush tax cuts across the board, he still has his independent streak, noting that he “would keep an open mind” when it comes to filibuster reform and said the question of defunding the president’s healthcare bill “is something I just don’t quite completely understand yet.”

Meanwhile, O’Donnell has scored the requisite endorsements for a Tea Party-backed insurgent throughout the past week. She won the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) — both have played major roles in some of this primary season’s biggest upsets.

But the difference in Delaware is the state party establishment, whose members have devoted themselves to taking out O’Donnell because they believe she is unelectable in November. It’s a dynamic unseen in most other contested Republican primaries this cycle, and the result has been nothing short of open warfare between O’Donnell backers and state GOP Chairman Tom Ross.

Late Sunday, the Tea Party Express released a call demanding Ross’s resignation, saying in a statement that Ross “has trashed Republican candidates, beliefs and principles, and shown a complete lack of character or integrity.”

Castle said he wasn’t surprised that O’Donnell won the backing of Palin and DeMint. But he echoed the state GOP in saying they both chose a candidate who isn’t electable in the fall.

“I know Jim and I have a perfectly good relationship with him,” said Castle. “But in this case I think he should have followed William F. Buckley’s advice, which is to select the most conservative person who can get elected.”

For O’Donnell, who is heading into Tuesday’s primary furious at the negatives she claims have unfairly come her way, Castle should be anathema to the national GOP.

“There’s a tidal wave happening right now,” said O’Donnell. “We’re riding it and they’re grasping at anything they can to stay afloat.”

O’Donnell called the involvement of the national party establishment in the primary “appalling” and said the state party was “running scared” given that she appears to have momentum.

Like the group did in Alaska, the Tea Party Express has been trumpeting internal poll numbers that show O’Donnell in a dead heat with Castle. And late Sunday, Public Policy released a poll that painted the same picture.

For the Castle campaign, the mission is to turn out the state’s more centrist Republicans to prevent O’Donnell’s more fervent conservative backers from pulling the upset in a primary where the turnout level is just about anyone’s guess.

The uncertainty makes both the public and private polling unreliable indicators of what will unfold Tuesday. Pollster Tom Jensen said that, given the lack of voter history for competitive GOP primaries in Delaware, who constitutes a likely voter is up for interpretation.

O’Donnell is focused on Kent and Sussex counties in the southern part of the state, while the Castle campaign will work hard to get as many voters out of New Castle County in the north as possible.

Should O’Donnell win, it wouldn’t be the first time this primary season that an intra-party rift needed healing after a nasty primary, but GOP unity in the state would likely be a heavy lift.

It’s hard to imagine the Delaware Republican Party getting behind O’Donnell should she defeat Castle, which could put the onus squarely on the NRSC to decide whether to commit dollars to the state for the general election.

But O’Donnell said she has no doubt the NRSC will support her campaign should she pull the upset, noting, in an apparent show of confidence, “It’s already on our schedule to go [to Washington] on Sept. 15.”