Mike Castle Loses; Christine O’Donnell Leads Tea Party Charge

Tea Party upstarts rock Delaware and New Hampshire. Mark McKinnon on a GOP establishment on the run, what voters want—and the coming Republican identity crisis.

Tea Party upstart Christine O'Donnell upset Mike Castle in the Delaware GOP primary. (Getty Images)

Voters grabbed their pitchforks Tuesday night and came over the ramparts. The revolution has arrived. Republican primary voters Tuesday night in key contests in Delaware and New Hampshire and New York sent a clear message, in case anyone had missed it up until now: If you are part of the establishment, you better grab your goodies and get out of the castle while you can.

Tea Party upstart Christine O’Donnell upset Mike Castle in the Delaware GOP primary. In New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte, the establishment candidate, was battling for survival before being declared the chosen candidate over Ovide Lamontagne in the Senate race there. Voters in both places voted with their hearts and not their heads, with passion more than pragmatism—as the losing candidates were considered far more likely to win the general election.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (the Establishment) has now backed eight losing candidates. In other words, this grass-roots anti-establishment wave actually threatens the GOP’s chances of taking control of the Senate.

The attacks on O’Donnell were personal; she was “nuts.” The attacks on Castle were on his record; he was too liberal for some. The bitter GOP battle in Delaware for the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden was a doozy. But it was a proxy war between the Tea Party and establishment GOP writ large in this small state.

O’Donnell, the perceived outsider, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2006 and 2008. In this race, she was backed by some in the Tea Party movement and by both former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who were attracted by her social and economic conservatism. Though she did not have the compelling personal bio of other welcome GOP upstarts like congressional candidates Joe Miller of Alaska, Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, Mike Lee of Utah or Marco Rubio of Florida, O’Donnell’s more conservative platform positions appealed to those on the right wary of Castle’s commitment to the cause.

O’Donnell’s other major endorsements included The National Rifle Association, The Susan B. Anthony List and radio host Mark Levin. But with no public record and an imperfect and troubling personal record, the marketing consultant and activist became an easy target for fair and unfair personal attacks by the local Republican establishment and national conservative media.

As the mood in the country became less patient, Rep. Castle’s popularity dropped. A survey by Public Policy Polling last week showed O'Donnell leading Castle 47 percent to 44 percent for a dead heat. But in a hypothetical general election poll conducted over the past month, the uncontested Democratic candidate Chris Coons trailed Castle but led O'Donnell.

Daily Beast contributors on the primary resultsThe sound and the fury in Delaware are not signs of a party in disarray — they are signs of an engaged electorate who want to make a statement. GOP voter turnout was much higher than expected. While a RINO head mounted on the wall may be a trophy, a RINO seated in a chair in the Senate could have helped make a Republican majority. But voters were unwilling to settle.

By electing O’Donnell, voters in Delaware proved the Tea Party is now more than a movement — it’s become the driving force and voice of Republican voters.

Delaware is undeniably a blue state. Though Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) won the GOP nomination easily, President Barack Obama won over 62 percent of the popular vote here in 2008. Registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans by roughly 329,000 to 179,000. And the state bird is even the Blue Hen Chicken – not an actual breed but a nod to the cock-fighting spirit of the state’s Revolutionary War heroes.

With only three counties and one congressional district, the state’s population of 885,122 is less than the city of Detroit. So why does Delaware matter to the GOP?

Because some of the questions yet to be resolved continue to drive a dilemma within the party. Who are we: Establishment, Tea Party or moderates? Who is our voice: Gov. Palin and Sen. DeMint? Or establishment types like Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA)? Or even moderates like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine)? How will we vet candidates for 2012: For purity or practicality? Whose opinion matters more: That of the pundits, the politicians or the people?

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Delaware was the marquee race, but in a quieter GOP race for Senate in New Hampshire, DeMint-backed attorney Lamontagne faced the Palin-backed year-long front-runner, Attorney General Kelly Ayotte. The Tea Party vote may have been split here. Lamontagne was leading late in Tuesday evening, but the race eventually went to Ayotte. The tight battle reflects the high-octane energy among GOP voters.

And in New York, Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino beat out the establishment candidate, former Rep. Rick Lazio (R-NY), for the GOP nomination for governor. Paladino is not a professional politician, an apparent advantage in this election cycle, and he is known for speaking his mind. He will face a tough fight against Democrat Andrew Cuomo.

Tuesday’s results still do not provide resounding resolution — other than the people rule, and the people ain’t happy with the keepers of the castle. The other answers may not come until November, or perhaps 2012. What will be interesting is to see how this tension between the establishment and the revolutionaries in the Republican Party plays out post-November.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.