Christine O'Donnell's insurgent campaign had even hardcore conservatives recoiling. Benjamin Sarlin on her gay bashing, fundamentalism, and tax scandals.
Until recently, Christine O’Donnell’s quirky Tea Party campaign for the Delaware Senate seat vacated by Joe Biden received little attention. Longtime congressman and former governor Mike Castle was seen as a shoo-in. But an endorsement from Sarah Palin and a big money commitment from the same Tea Party Express group that helped fuel an upset in Alaska’s GOP Senate primary has all eyes on Wilmington today.
Nervous rumblings from establishment Republicans, who overwhelmingly back Castle, turned to outright panic when a poll showed her leading Castle 47-44 this week. Now the Castle campaign and supporters are racing to define O’Donnell as a fringe candidate whose victory would guarantee a Democratic Senate next year.
“It has mobilized conservative Republicans far more than they ever have been in the past,” University of Delaware political science professor Joseph Pika told The Daily Beast.
"Sadly, Christine's just not really a legitimate candidate in Delaware," Tom Ross, chair of the state GOP, told the LA Times. For the far-right branch of Delaware Republicans, the campaign has become a coming out party.
“It has mobilized conservative Republicans far more than they ever have been in the past,” University of Delaware political science professor Joseph Pika told The Daily Beast. ”Some of this is the influx of new funds but much of it seems to be the impact of having a focus—a clear candidacy to rally behind. There were long-standing tensions within the Republican party that the Tea Party's involvement have brought to the forefront.”
Complicating matters for Castle: The state’s primaries are closed, meaning he can’t count on independents and Democrats jumping in to help fend off O’Donnell’s challenge. And turnout in Delaware primaries has been low in recent years— only 16% of registered Republicans in 2008. According to TIME, both campaigns expect only about 40,000 voters, an increase over previous contests but still a sliver of the electorate so small that even a tiny influx of new voters could tip the scales. Which means it’s easier for insurgents to upset the establishment.
Firing back at Castle, O’Donnell has run a campaign so brutal that even some prominent Tea Party backers, most notably RedState’s Erick Erickson, are urging voters to abandon their support. The campaign reached what seemed to be its low point when former O’Donnell staffers launched an independent effort to spread unsubstantiated rumors that Mike Castle is gay—only to sink even lower when O’Donnell jumped into the fray to call Castle’s campaign tactics “un-manly” (WINK, WINK) and chortle that “ this is not a bake-off, get your man-pants” (NUDGE, NUDGE).
• Benjy Sarlin: How the GOP Could Lose the Tea Party• John Avlon: The Tea Party's Northern Insurgency• What to Watch in Tuesday's Primaries• Samuel P. Jacobs: Frontrunner Follies Asked about the rumor mongering, a spokeswoman for O’Donnell referred The Daily Beast to a statement denouncing an unrelated FEC complaint by the Delaware GOP against their campaign over coordination with Tea Party groups. A statement on O’Donnell’s website condemned the gay smears as “mudslinging”—but attributed them to a local newspaper and not to her supporters.
Until this month, O’Donnell was best known for her run in 2008 against Joe Biden, another long-shot bid in which she secured the Republican nomination only to be outspent $7.5 million to about $115,000. She lost that race 65%-35% even as Biden ran simultaneously for Vice President. She ran as a write-in candidate in 2006 as well. In addition to her political career, she founded a religious activist group, the Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth, and did consulting work in between appearances on TV news shows.
Video Gallery: Christine O’Donnell’s Most Notable Quotes
Her biography has provided ample opportunities for attack and Castle is hitting the airwaves hard as a flood of opposition research hits the news. The latest ads go after O’Donnell’s personal finances—she reportedly was confronted by the IRS over failure to pay back taxes. O'Donnell told reporters her financial troubles have enabled her to identify with voters struggling in the recession. On her website, she says the IRS claim was a " computer error."
Her own 2008 campaign manager recorded robocalls for the state party slamming her over unpaid campaign expenses as well. O'Donnell says the campaign manager was paid and then fired after two weeks on the job.
The conservative Weekly Standard released a lengthy article on O’Donnell’s lawsuit against a conservative think tank she previously worked for over gender discrimination and said she implied in court documents that she was looking at Princeton graduate courses despite having not received her undergraduate degree at the time. O'Donnell's site claims her 1993 degree was withheld due to unpaid bills and then expired credits—she received her official diploma earlier this year—but previous statements on her campaigns' websites touted her as a graduate.
Then there are her views on sex—if her statements in an appearance on a 1990s MTV show are to be believed, O’Donnell believes masturbation should be condemned even as an abstinent alternative to sex.
If O’Donnell pulls out a win today, even with the help of Tea Party backing and endorsements from Sarah Palin, it will be as major an upset as any this cycle. It will also likely tip the seat to the Democrats, denying Republicans a rare opportunity to secure an easy win in a traditionally Blue State.
Pika puts O’Donnell’s general election chances at “next to zero.”
“O'Donnell's statewide image is as an extremist—her voters are a small percentage of the general voting population,” he wrote in an e-mail. “My guess is that she would struggle to get to 35%.”
Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.