Small State, Big Stakes

Can the Tea Party win in Delaware the way it won in Alaska?

Mike Castle in Wilmington and Christine O’Donnell in Camden, Del.

WILMINGTON, Del.—Mike Castle is in his element. It’s Saturday and Delaware’s only representative in the U.S. House has positioned himself at the entrance to the Arden Fair, a 103-year-old celebration of a left-leaning artist community with a jam band, beer garden, and row after row of homemade fudge and jewelry. As he shakes hands, the eight-term Republican, now running for the Senate seat vacated by Joe Biden, competes for attention with three other candidates and the occasional merchant wearing a wizard’s cap and cloak. He usually wins.

“Generally speaking, I get recognized,” says Castle. “If they show no sign of recognition, I assume they’re not from Delaware.” He shakes a few more hands and amends the statement. “Don’t get me wrong, there are people who don’t recognize me! Some of these kids, for example.”

In a typical election year, recognition is all Castle needs to win. A former state representative, state senator, lieutenant governor, and governor, Castle has not lost an election since he entered politics during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. He has not trailed in any polls in his current campaign. The voters who come up and talk to him remember the time they met him at the opera house, or the phone call he made to them after they wrote letters, or the work he’s done on some issue like special-needs education. Several people introduce themselves as Democrats and admit—always using the same phrasing—that “you’re the only Republican I vote for.”

“The whole community, Arden, is based on a liberal philosophy, as you know,” says Castle, shaking hands. “But I would imagine a great percentage of people who come here are not residents of Arden. It’s probably not a Tea Party haven, either.”

The woman he was shaking hands with smiles conspiratorially—she wants to give him some advice about the particular Tea Party candidate running against Castle in his Republican primary, the candidate who has spent a year going after him and who has spent the last week on the defensive.

“Stop giving Christine O’Donnell such a hard time!”

“Ohhhh,” Castle sighs. “It’s such a shame, isn’t it?”

And that’s all Castle really wants to say about O’Donnell, a Republican strategist and pundit who’s making her third long-shot bid for office. In 2006 and 2008 she ran for Senate and got nowhere—as the sacrificial lamb against Joe Biden, she lost by a 40-point margin, the largest of any of Biden’s seven campaigns. Castle, who won re-election to the House the same day, ran 90,000 votes ahead of O’Donnell. When she declined to stand aside for Castle, who’s been eying an open Senate seat for years, the party ignored her.

It stopped ignoring her last month. In Alaska, Joe Miller, a conservative attorney and failed local candidate, defied predictions and polls in order to beat Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary. The Tea Party Express, the political arm of the movement that had spent $550,000 on ads to help Miller, declared victory and planted a new flag in Delaware. O’Donnell, the group announced, would be the movement’s new cause, with ads and fundraising drives that would push her over the top.

The Republican establishment woke up and turned the cannons. The Delaware Republican Party started issuing brutal theses about O’Donnell’s 2008 campaign debts, her gaffes, and the fact that she still hadn’t gotten her college degree after paying off loans for 13 years. (She got it last week.) Dan Gaffney, a conservative local radio host, asked O’Donnell to respond to the attacks in a morning interview; O’Donnell called him a “sell-out” and asked, “Has Castle gotten to you, too?” She told the Weekly Standard’s John McCormack that video trackers were hounding her and even stalking her campaign office, the address of which she does not reveal for security reasons. The state GOP called her “delusional.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee made sure that Beltway politicos were watching all of this. The News Journal, the Wilmington newspaper that serves most of the state, has run story after story on the front page about O’Donnell’s troubles.

The voters who stop to chat with Castle have a rock-solid faith that those stories will sink her.

“I want to say one thing to you,” says one voter. “Delusional.”

Castle laughs sheepishly. “Well, I didn’t say that! Those were not my words.”

There’s something almost quaint about this faith in the local media, especially when O’Donnell’s supporters are asked about the same stories. They, like many members of the Tea Party movement, don’t think that information in newspapers is definitive; it may even be inferior to what they hear from their friends or from talk radio. This is one of many reasons why Castle gets along with these activists the way a negotiator might deal with a hostage-taker.

“Some of the things they seem to advocate go beyond the norm,” says Castle. “I have trouble distinguishing sometimes between the factions out there that are in this ultra-conservative mode. You know—be it the patriots, or this Tea Party Express, or the different factions of the Tea Party. I’ve seen advocacy for eliminating the Department of Education, for example.”

He’s interrupted again—”Hi, Debbie!”—but keeps musing on how Tea Party activists shout down legislation by saying it’s unconstitutional.

“There are a lot of things that the federal government does that, you know, might not be explicitly in the Constitution per se,” says Castle. “There are a lot of things that the states do, too. And they’ve been doing it in some cases since the 18th century.” He shrugs. “I do suppose it is a good question to ask.”

The next day, about an hour’s drive south of Wilmington in a Camden, Del., park, a dozen or so of the activists asking those questions are gathering to organize for O’Donnell. Two of her supporters, Jill and Carmen Bianchi, have brought sandwiches, soda, and chips to feed the volunteers; nearby, a dozen teenagers are swinging swords and shields in a game of live action role-playing.

When she arrives to meet them, O’Donnell brings a pound cake and apologizes for not having baked it herself. She happily points out the tracker that Republicans have sent to follow her. Her short speech is light on policy, all about momentum and the media—slightly outdated polls that show her holding the seat if she’s her party’s nominee, the “mud-slinging” tone of the race. She tells the crowd about a Vietnam veteran named George who told her he was as angry about the state of the country as he’d been about being spit on when he returned from the war.

“He reminded me why we too need to continue to take the hits,” says O’Donnell. “You were spit on for defending your country. We’ll be slandered for defending our country. But what I want to do for you, George, is restore honor back to America.”*

That’s exactly what this crowd wants to hear, and it murmurs with approval. Many of these activists went to Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington the weekend before. O’Donnell did, too, but unlike them she got to meet Sarah Palin. Her campaign team is led by Matt Moran, a veteran of Doug Hoffman’s 2009 upstart third-party campaign in New York’s 23rd congressional district. They hope that the GOP onslaught on O’Donnell won’t stop powerful conservatives from weighing in for her.

Those endorsements could provide exactly what O’Donnell is missing in her quest to turn what was a fringe candidacy into a giant-killing one. She needs more credibility. After the picnic, at a large Sunday crowd at a Masonic hall, O’Donnell struggles a bit to convince conservative voters that their desire to punish Republicans In Name Only is enough to elect her. She rattles off a political biography that doesn’t get much response, going through her work for Haley Barbour at the RNC in the 1990s and for Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions when it was marketing The Passion of the Christ. Even when talking about repealing the Democrats’ health-care bill—an easy applause line for this audience—she takes her answer to a place that the crowd doesn’t want to go, musing about how Hillary Clinton might challenge Obama in 2012 if he vetoes a repeal bill. “There might be a certain blonde secretary taking a leave and running in 2012!” says O’Donnell. It’s a pundit’s answer, not a politician’s.

It leaves Lance Wilgus, who asked the question, a little confused. “I won’t vote for Castle,” he says. “But I haven’t decided who I will vote for yet.” Turnout for the GOP primary may be as low as 45,000. It’s clear that there are enough conservatives in Delaware to prevent Castle from ascending to the Senate if they want to. It’s just not clear that O’Donnell is their candidate.Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Correction, Sept. 8, 2010: This article originally omitted the word what from O’Donnell’s quote “But what I want to do for you, George, is restore honor back to America.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)