WILMINGTON, Del. -- Conservative Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell shocked the state by seizing a surprise primary victory over Republican Rep. Mike Castle, a longtime moderate lawmaker who suffered withering attacks for supporting cap and trade last year.
O'Donnell, a former television political analyst and tea party candidate, achieved an unlikely outcome despite being the target of a ferocious battery of assaults by Castle and the Republican Party targeting her personal finances, college education and ability to oversee public resources. Analysts portrayed the result as seriously endangering the GOP's effort to beat Democrat Chris Coons, the New Castle County executive, in November to capture Vice President Joe Biden's Senate seat.
Castle flatly warned voters in the days leading up to the primary that nominating O'Donnell would propel Coons to an easy victory in the largely Democratic state, saying "it's that simple." But those cautions were brushed aside, and O'Donnell exploited low voter turnout and rules barring independents from casting Republican ballots to seize 53.1 percent of the votes. Castle, whose career includes two gubernatorial victories and nine terms in Congress, captured 46.9 percent. It is his first loss.
"Republicans are in big trouble," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report. "They would not be favored to win this race anymore. She is a deeply flawed candidate."
O'Donnell's victory accelerates the pace of the tea party movement, adding to electoral successes in Utah, Kentucky, Nevada and Alaska. It also marks the first time that one of the eight Republicans to support the Democratic cap-and-trade bill in the House last year was cast out in a primary.
The race was a potent blend of recession economics, disdain for established politicians and sharp partisanship over the president's policies on health care and energy. O'Donnell sought to excite conservatives by repeatedly warning that Democrats would proceed with major climate legislation, including cap and trade, after their numbers are reduced in the November elections, but before losing lawmakers leave office in January.
'Nobody wants this [climate] bill'
She cautioned that Castle could be the deciding climate vote in the lame-duck session of Congress. She also described herself as casting the critical vote that would sink it. She portrayed the election as urgent because the winner in November will be appointed immediately to finish the final four years of Biden's term.
"Castle is a big supporter of cap and trade," O'Donnell said recently on FOX News. "Nobody wants this bill. In this race, I am the only candidate who has pledged to not only vote against it but advocate against it. So people are looking at this as perhaps me being that filibuster vote."
The race became the focus of conservatives in the past two weeks. Sarah Palin endorsed O'Donnell on Sept. 9, saying she is "against Obama's 'cap and tax' scheme" and the new health care law. Tea party leaders Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) also weighed in on O'Donnell's behalf.
It sparked a late-campaign flurry. Palin recorded robocalls that peppered phone lines last weekend, and O'Donnell blasted out glossy mass mailings with side-by-side pictures of her and Palin, showcasing their physical and political similarities.
"STOP THE OBAMA-CASTLE-PELOSI AGENDA!" said a mailing delivered Monday, citing a popular warning this year by GOP challengers -- that incumbents are aligned with liberal House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
O'Donnell's conservative message resonated best in the state's southern countryside, where she needed a strong outcome to counter urban Republican moderates in the north. Sussex County is contained in a pair of geographic parentheses, with Maryland on the west and the Atlantic on the east. In between is a 50-mile stretch of tan corn rows drying in small fields abutting forest clumps and plots of soybeans.
The area, far to the south of Wilmington and the orbit of nearby Philadelphia, is sometimes called "lower, slower Delaware." It had electoral promise for O'Donnell: It was the state's only county to support Republican candidate John McCain during the presidential race in 2008. O'Donnell also tested well there that same year, when she nearly tied Joe Biden in votes when trying to unseat him from the Senate. More than 86,000 Sussex residents voted in that election, and Biden edged O'Donnell out with 272 ballots.
That didn't happen yesterday. O'Donnell captured 64.5 percent of the vote in Sussex and 63.6 percent in Kent County. Castle commanded his only lead in the state's third county, North Castle County, home to Wilmington.
O'Donnell's strategy was to motivate conservatives in the south by attacking Castle as a liberal Republican who sides with Democrats. She rained fliers into the area warning of an "Obama-Castle agenda" that included cap and trade.
It struck home in Bridgeville, where a flag declaring "Don't Tread on Me" hung from a house near a country crossroads.
'What global warming?'
"What global warming?" asked Bob Pucci, an O'Donnell supporter who is suspicious of government regulation of greenhouse gases. "I don't believe it. There's been global climate change every year since I've been growing up: warm, cold, warm, cold."
Sussex County doesn't have enough voters to independently carry a candidate to victory during a general election. But in Delaware's closed primary -- which prohibits independents from supporting a party candidate -- it appears to have worked.
In Castle's leafy Wilmington neighborhood, with wide boulevards and large lawns, one Democratic voter left the polling station concerned about O'Donnell's recent rise in popularity. The voter, who declined to be named, tried to cast a ballot for Castle, but couldn't because the deadline to change parties passed back in March.
"This country needs moderates," the Democrat said. "God, I hope he wins," she added, saying an O'Donnell victory "would be an embarrassment to all women. The woman's a ditz."
A Republican voter, meanwhile, expressed support for Castle's willingness to support Democratic initiatives like cap and trade. "I'm old. I'm moderate," she said, declining to identify herself.
The race was compared to other primaries that propelled tea party candidates into the general election. O'Donnell highlighted Republican Joe Miller's stealth victory over Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) last month to recruit supporters and donations. But this race was different.
Trouble may loom for O'Donnell in general election
Delaware is far more liberal, giving Obama 61 percent of its vote for president in 2008. Therefore, O'Donnell would have a much harder time winning the general election than Castle, analysts say.
Castle also fought back against O'Donnell's claims. The race turned deeply negative, with Castle and the Republican Party firing scathing personal shots at O'Donnell. That didn't happen in Alaska, where Murkowski refused to attack Miller's character.
If O'Donnell is able to win the November race, she would capture a coveted Democratic seat. But her victory upends predictions that the Senate's makeup was poised to take on new moderate tints, led by Castle and other centrist candidates, like Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), one of Castle's eight colleagues in the House to support cap and trade last year, who is vying for Obama's Senate seat.
"As important as Mike Castle would be on major environmental and climate issues, he'd probably be more important to the general makeup of the Senate," Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center, said early yesterday. "Given his expertise on energy and climate issues, [he] would be someone who could bridge that gap" between Democrats and Republicans.
O'Donnell's victory comes during a period in which Republican candidates are increasingly campaigning on anti-climate issues. Many are casting doubt on the agreement among an overwhelming majority of scientists that man-made emissions are contributing to global warming.
If the GOP claims the majority in either chamber of Congress, it would likely push the country away from public investments in clean energy technology, says Joshua Freed, director of the Clean Energy Initiative at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. He noted that China is already retooling its economy to take advantage of emission-free power.
"It's going to be much tougher to get any of those critical proposals considered," Freed said.