WILMINGTON, Del. — The results of the Republican primary election for Delaware’s Senate seat are now known. In a stunning upset, insurgent Christine O’Donnell defeated Representative Michael Castle winning the Republican nomination for the Senate seat left vacant by Democratic Vice President Joe Biden. The November Delaware election grows particularly distinct as it is a special election, meaning that the winner will be immediately sworn in and will affect the balance of power right away.
The upset shows significant fault lines in the Republican coalition.
For the last couple of months, the mainstream media has been trying to sell America the narrative of a resurgent Republican Party — a party seemingly invigorated by its opponents being slowly drowned in their un-tempered enthusiasm they had unleashed in 2009. It seemed President Obama and the Democrats’ rhetoric had promised too much, the media keeps repeating, with all their accomplishments appearing as Washington machinations, and not the vision that had brought them to power.
However, the victory of tea party-backed insurgent Christine O’Donnell indicates that something quite different is sweeping the nation. As residents of Delaware have seen first hand, this primary was conducted not between two equal members of a party but by the Republican establishment through the proxy of Rep. Castle, who has four decades of political experience including gubernatorial service, versus the emerging dissident tea party conservative orthodoxy through the proxy of Christine O’Donnell. O’Donnell was endorsed by Sarah Palin, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and many other right-wing Tea Party Express leaders.
The Republican establishment here denigrated O’Donnell throughout the primary season. They attacked her personal finances and accused her of delusional paranoia. For her part, O’Donnell didn’t run a positive campaign either. She accused Castle of being a RINO, (Republican in name only) and alluded that he was a homosexual. Rumors are already percolating of a mass exodus of Republican voters from Delaware’s New Castle County GOP Committee and the State GOP committee followed by endorsements for Democratic nominee Chris Coons.
What is truly interesting about this defeat is that O’Donnell is ostensibly unelectable in what is a moderate Democratic-leaning state. Public Policy Polling predicted Democrat Coons would have found it difficult to defeat Castle in the special election, because of Castle’s long career in Delaware politics. He was popular with independents and moderates, and positioned himself as an “elder statesman.”
However, Castle’s loss can probably be attributed to large recent mass conversion of party registrations of moderate Delaware Republicans into independents, therefore making what would have been Castle’s Republican base ineligible to vote in the primary. Even if he had defeated O’Donnell, it would have come at the cost of alienating many of those very independents who saw his credibility damaged by his negative ads.
So why are tea partiers running as Republicans if it seems to be destroying their own party apparatus? Ultimately, the tea party cannot envision the practical horizon of their actions. It is not truly interested in traditional Washington bids for power. The tea party movement is fueled by that perennial conservative dream of counter-revolution — a state intervention onto a society they feel has become disjointed. This primary indicates that there is no political future in this vision.
As November approaches, it is becoming clear that American politics are more divisive than ever. However, the fault lines appear to have changed. What we’re seeing is not the Republican coalition of fiscal conservatives, religious right, neo-conservatives and libertarians that ushered in the Bush era, but the breakdown of this tenuous alliance altogether.