The GOP’s Delaware dilemma

Aaron Guerrero Contributor
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Fresh off the heels of a stunning victory in Alaska’s Senate race, the Tea Party has come to Delaware, where it’s turned its sights to centrist Republican Mike Castle.

Once viewed as a shoe-in to take over a Senate seat controlled by Democrats for over three decades, Castle’s resume as a career politician and his moderate instincts have left him vulnerable to the same Tea Party resentment that has brought down other GOP incumbents and establishment candidates this election cycle.

Tea Partiers have put their financial clout and turbo-charged support behind conservative Christine O’Donnell, giving her more than a fighting chance of defeating Castle in today’s primary. Endorsements from Tea Party icons Sarah Palin and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint have added to O’Donnell’s viability.

Young, attractive, and unflinchingly devoted to the Tea Party agenda, O’Donnell has left the GOP establishment in both Delaware and D.C. quivering at the prospect of her winning the Republican nod.

A recent Rasmussen poll justified such fears, showing O’Donnell trailing by double digits to presumptive Democratic nominee Chris Coons, while Castle leads Coons in a head-to-head match-up by a comfortable margin.

Weary of Tea Party candidates endangering what looked like probable Senate victories in states like Nevada, Colorado, and Kentucky, the GOP establishment has taken the gloves off in Delaware, subjecting O’Donnell to punishing attacks.

Castle and Co. have charged that O’Donnell’s proclamation of fiscal sainthood bares no resemblance to a personal history of less-than-stellar financial management. And over the weekend, reports surfaced of a 2005 lawsuit against a former employer in which O’Donnell claimed she suffered “mental anguish” as a result of her firing, raising the possibility that O’Donnell’s personal woes extend beyond her questionable financial history.

The ferocity and consistency of the attacks against O’Donnell represent a systematic effort by establishment Republicans to impress upon rank-and-file Republicans that O’Donnell is riddled with personal baggage and is simply unelectable.

But the onslaught aimed at O’Donnell has failed to stymie her momentum.

A Public Policy Polling survey released over the weekend showed O’Donnell edging Castle by three points. In a sign that the attacks on O’Donnell have backfired, only 47 percent of voters view Castle favorably, a considerable drop from his 60 percent favorable rating in August.

If Delaware Republicans come to the polls today with more concern for ideology than for electability, Castle is in trouble. The survey found that 55 percent of likely GOP voters found Castle to be too liberal. O’Donnell has been relentless in drawing contrasts between her and Castle on issues like cap-and-trade and abortion, branding Castle as “Obama’s favorite Republican.” For his part, Castle has tried to sweeten the pot for more conservative voters by emphasizing his support for extending the Bush tax cuts and repealing Obamacare.

But the news isn’t all good for O’Donnell. According to the Public Policy Polling survey, only half of GOP primary voters believe that she is fit for office. O’Donnell’s uneven behavior over the past few weeks has likely contributed to the electorate’s doubts.

Earlier this month, she had a testy exchange with a conservative radio host that resulted in the muting of her mic. In another radio interview, she informed Castle that the race was “not a bake-off” and instructed him to get his “man-pants on.” Her campaign manager claimed a major polling outfit was conspiring to make her look bad, and she implied that her political opponents were stalking her.

Still, even with her strange conduct and questionable campaign tactics, O’Donnell seems primed to cash in on the same Tea Party enthusiasm that has catapulted other long-shot candidates to shocking victories. If she won, it would certainly be a remarkable feat.

But it would also be a remarkable statement of how the Tea Party has evolved since helping elect Scott Brown in January. When Tea Partiers backed Brown’s candidacy, they bridged their differences with the GOP establishment, rallied around the unifying purpose of defeating the Democrats’ health care bill, and demonstrated the movement’s pragmatism.

Now, with control of the Senate possibly hanging in the balance, Tea Partiers have embarked on a stubborn streak. They seem intent on nominating candidates who have little to no chance of winning their general elections.

It may cost Republicans the Senate.

More importantly, it may cost them the opportunity to put the full legislative breaks on a presidential agenda the Tea Partiers dearly resent.

Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate, who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.