WASHINGTON – Tea party favorite Christine O’Donnell, a little-known underdog, Tuesday defeated veteran Delaware congressman Mike Castle for the state’s Republican U.S. Senate nomination, the latest in a nationwide series of 2010 upsets by grass-roots conservative candidates over establishment GOP favorites.
O’Donnell’s triumph – along with a victory in the New York gubernatorial primary by businessman Carl Paladino over former Rep. Rick Lazio – sent a strong signal that the tea party rebellion is roiling the GOP across the land and will influence the outcome of November’s congressional and gubernatorial elections.
O’Donnell will face Democrat Chris Coons for the Delaware Senate seat held for 36 years by Vice President Joe Biden. Since Biden left last year, it’s been filled by Ted Kaufman, his former chief of staff.
Joseph Pika, professor of political science at the University of Delaware, said O’Donnell’s victory reflected “lots of anti-establishment feeling … some anti-Washington, anti-career politician rhetoric, lots of energy – the enthusiasm and excitement in this election was all on O’Donnell’s side.”
The result was particularly stinging for state Republican Party leaders, who had pushed Castle as the best bet to beat the Democrat in November. With 99 percent of districts reporting, O’Donnell had 53.1 percent of the vote to Castle’s 46.9 percent.
In New York, Lazio, a veteran congressman and strong favorite of GOP regulars, was seen as a strong favorite over Paladino, a self-financed insurgent who echoed tea party calls to oust incumbents of all parties.
With 50 percent of precincts reporting, Paladino was trouncing Lazio, 66 percent to 34 percent. He’ll face New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who starts the race as a big favorite, in November.
Another upset loomed in the Republican race for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, where tea party choice Ovide Lamontagne was leading former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, 42 percent to 37 percent, with 24 percent of precincts reporting.
Analysts saw Tuesday’s primaries continuing a trend that’s been apparent all year.
“I’m not sure voters go through a lot of political calculation in their heads. They see someone who looks like the other guys in Washington, and they say, ‘we’re tired of Washington-speak,’ ” said Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
The O’Donnell and Paladino upsets continued a trend that began this spring, when tea party favorites upset incumbent Republican Sens. Robert Bennett in Utah and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. They also defeated GOP stalwarts in Nevada, Kentucky and Colorado, and forced Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to leave the Republican Party and seek election to the Senate as an independent.
O’Donnell’s triumph, though, is the most striking yet, because Castle, 71, has been winning statewide elections in Delaware for 30 years, while O’Donnell, 41, was making her third Senate bid in four years. The first two times she lost badly.
While Castle raised about $3.2 million and had a seasoned political staff behind him, O’Donnell had few resources, and raised only $376,000.
However, O’Donnell got help from the California-based Tea Party Express, which vowed to spend at least $250,000 on TV and radio ads for her, ads that branded Castle as a liberal and a supporter of the Obama agenda. He voted for the Bush-sponsored bank-bailout bill and the cap-and-trade climate change bill, but opposed Obama’s stimulus legislation.
The mild-mannered Castle fought back hard, unleashing a negative ad last week informing voters of O’Donnell’s income tax problems and unpaid college bills. The Internal Revenue Service placed a lien against O’Donnell earlier this year for unpaid taxes.
O’Donnell countered that the agency later admitted it had erred. An IRS spokesman said he couldn’t discuss individual tax matters. Newspaper reports also said that O’Donnell had contested her alma mater over payment of college expenses.
She called Castle’s allegations “hysterical” as she traveled through the small state, harnessing the anger at Washington and a perception among conservatives that Castle wasn’t sensitive to their concerns.