On the Thursday after Election Day in November, Delawareans gather around the Sussex County Courthouse in Georgetown, Del. for a centuries-old tradition called "Return Day." It's become a day of celebration, when the town crier reads aloud the state's election results, and voters bury the hatchet, literally, on the year's campaign cycle. While the festivities will go on this November and a hatchet will again find its way into the dirt, the state's residents may have a tough time forgetting the polemic nature of their Senate special election.
The Republican primary race for Delaware's Senate seat—won by Joe Biden in 2008 even as he was also getting elected to the vice presidency nationally, and now held by his longtime adviser Sen. Ted Kaufman—has gained national attention in the weeks following attorney Joe Miller's Tea Party-driven primary victory in Alaska over incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
The First State's primary is one of the last stages upon which the tension between the Republican Party establishment and the ardent Tea Party movement will play out. Grassroots conservative groups have demonstrated strength this primary season by backing victorious candidates in southern and western states like Kentucky, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, and Alaska. But on Tuesday, the races move into the Northeast, territory widely seen as less hospitable to the Tea Party's brand of conservatism. "There's a lot more potential consequence for Republicans if they nominate these Tea Party candidates in these states that are more Democratic leaning," says Democratic pollster Tom Jensen.
Political experts say that moderate states like Delaware and New Hampshire, where another Tea Party-backed candidate is challenging the Republican favorite in a Senate primary on Tuesday, will test the extent to which the Tea Party can have a national rather than regional scope. And recent polling suggests that the conservatives have a chance.
The GOP establishment favorite in Delaware is centrist Rep. Mike Castle, who for the last 30 years has won every statewide election in which he has run. First elected lieutenant governor in 1981, Castle later served as governor for nearly eight years before taking his current House seat in 1992, representing Delaware's only congressional district. Before that, beginning in 1966, he served for a decade in the state legislature. "Mike Castle has been running for office—and been in office—since Lyndon Johnson was president," says Allan Loudell, a local news radio host. "Mike Castle has probably shaken hands with almost all of the state's voters."
Castle's insurgent opponent, activist Christine O'Donnell, who has never held elective office but ran against Biden for the same seat in 2008, had not been seen as a real threat to Castle until recently. But emboldened by Miller's Alaska victory, the Tea Party Express endorsed her and pledged to spend a quarter of a million dollars on O'Donnell's behalf. As of Monday, the group had already plunked down more than $215,000, most of it on broadcast ads, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. This blitz is similar to the last minute support the group poured into Alaska on Miller's behalf before his August 24 primary.[See who is giving money to Castle's campaign.]
"We like to get involved in races where we can actually make a difference, and we feel like this is one of those races," says Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, an outspoken Castle critic who derisively refers to him as a "Republican in Name Only," or "RINO," and a liberal.
O'Donnell's campaign also received a boost Thursday when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin endorsed her, adding to the national attention the race is receiving.
In a state that typically leans Democratic, GOP strategists say, a moderate like Castle will have a much better chance at attracting independent and Democratic voters than O'Donnell, who shares the Tea Party's conservative views. Indeed, a Rasmussen poll released on Sept. 7 showed Castle leading New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, who is unopposed for the Democratic nomination, by a 48-37 margin. O'Donnell, on the other hand, trails the Democrat by a similar 11-point margin, 47 percent to 36 percent. The only public poll of the primary between Castle and O'Donnell was released on Sunday by Public Policy Polling and gave O'Donnell 47 percent of the vote, while Castle trailed with 44 percent (the poll's margin of error was +/- 3.8 percent). A previous Tea Party Express poll shows Castle with a narrow, surmountable lead. And a Castle spokeswoman, last week, said that his campaign's internal polling also showed Castle ahead.