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09.14.10

The Wingnuts' New Queen

The anti-masturbation video, the financial turmoil, the gay-baiting—Tea Party serial campaigner Christine O’Donnell has no real chance of winning a general election. But her Delaware primary win is a dire warning to centrists everywhere.

Move over, Sharron Angle, there’s a new queen of the Wingnuts. And if anyone should be celebrating, it’s Democrats.

In nominating Christine O’Donnell over Mike Castle in Delaware’s closed partisan primary, Republicans have put forward a manifestly irresponsible candidate who will lose in November—depriving them of a realistic shot at the Senate majority and the satisfaction of winning Joe Biden’s seat. In the process, the Tea Party has compromised its core message of fiscal conservative libertarianism by elevating a social conservative activist who can’t balance her own checkbook and has spent most of her life arguing against the expansion of individual freedom.

O’Donnell’s victory reinforces the message of a party that is intent on burning down the big tent, with ideological activists RINO hunting on the basis of social issues alone and making the Democrats’ uphill battle just a little bit easier. Independents won’t vote for candidates like O’Donnell—extremists are always their own side’s worst enemy.

So as her 15 minutes begin (and this clock will click like a time bomb), you’d be right to ask, “who is Christine O’Donnell?”

“A crackpot of the first order,” according to the libertarian standard-bearer, Reason. Here’s the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard’s take : “O’Donnell’s finances, honesty, and stability have been called into question in light of her false and strange claims.”

Mike Castle deserved better than this ugly, ignominious end. But the real loss is the Republican Party’s.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Daily Beast contributors on the primary resultsO’Donnell is a 41-year-old serial unsuccessful campaigner, conducting three Senate campaigns in the last five years. Nonetheless, last quarter, she received only five donations from within the state of Delaware. Her support comes from national conservative activist political action committees like the Tea Party Express, which flooded the race late with campaign cash.

book-cover---wingnuts
Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. By John Avlon. 304 Pages. Beast Books. $15.95. ()

Her perky television personality made her a brief favorite on 1990s talk shows such as Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher and MTV, playing the role of the evangelical ingénue. Her shtick in those days was not only to push for abstinence but to decry masturbation; not only to advocate for fewer abortions but their complete abolition even in cases of rape and incest. Most curiously, she was also an ardent advocate for gay conversion therapy, arguing, essentially, that homosexuality was a mental disorder that could be cured through intervention.

It is somewhat darkly ironic, then, that one of the campaign tactics that she used against Rep. Mike Castle was to suggest repeatedly through surrogates that the married congressman was gay. This totally unfounded bit of gay-baiting exposed a bitter strain of bigotry running through her campaign. It was a core culture war campaign strategy down the stretch.

Christine O’Donnell may have only received her college degree last week because of unpaid tuition (which didn’t stop her from implying that she was taking graduate courses at Princeton) and on her 2009 income taxes stated that she earned only $5,800 last year (a number that she’s recently acknowledged might not be true). Nonetheless, she was savvy enough to sue her one-time employer, a conservative publishing group called Intercollegiate Studies Institute, for $6.9 million—arguing gender discrimination and “mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, mental and physical pain and anguish”—before abruptly dropping the lawsuit.

She has no shortage of character witnesses who actively dislike and distrust her. A former campaign manager took the highly unusual step of recording a robo-call describing O’Donnell as “a complete fraud.” “I found out she was living on campaign donations—using them for rent and personal expenses, while leaving her workers unpaid and piling up thousands in debt,” said Kristin Murray. “She wasn’t concerned about conservative causes. O’Donnell just wanted to make a buck.”

A staffer from her 2008 campaign, David Keegan, told The New York Times: “We were constantly trying to hold her back from spending. She was financially completely irresponsible.”

O’Donnell also came under fire for lying about her campaign record to conservative radio and print journalists, repeatedly saying that she’d won two out of three counties against Biden in the past. As National Review’s Jim Geraghty wrote: “It’s not merely that it’s not true; it’s that it’s easily and quickly disproven. This isn’t merely a lie; it’s a stupid lie.”

In sum, her primary political tactic is attacking opponents below the belt and then playing the victim card—deeply un-Reagan-esque on both counts.

In contrast to O’Donnell, Castle was uniquely suited to picking up Biden’s Senate seat. As the longest-serving congressman in Delaware history, he had a demonstrated to ability to win Republican, independent, and Democratic votes. But that key strength was turned on its head in a closed partisan primary. It did not matter that he had cut income taxes three times as governor and balanced the budget eight years in a row. It did not matter that he voted against the stimulus bill and health care. He was pro-choice. He was one of the few GOP congressmen to stand up to the Birthers at last summer’s town halls.

Castle was respected even by the conservative colleagues with whom he often disagreed on policy. And polls showed that he was an easy GOP pickup in a Democratic-leaning state precisely because of his principled centrism. Now, barring a write-in campaign, Mike Castle’s four-decade-long career in public service is over. He deserved better than this ugly, ignominious end. But the real loss is the Republican Party’s, which has hung out an unwelcome sign to any remaining centrist supporter. Now it will be forced to confront the costs that come with the conservative populist forces it has unleashed.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.