Christine O'Donnell ran her upstart primary campaign against heavy opposition from the GOP. And since securing the Republican nomination for the Senate in Delaware, she's been given a slim chance by most political observers of capturing the seat.
Yet O'Donnell has emerged as one of the most recognizable faces in this midterm election, although not always in the most positive light. She has been steadily mocked by Saturday Night Live for statements she has made in the past, as well as for her infamous "I'm not a witch" campaign ad. More recent statements—such as when she denied that the Constitution established the separation of church and state, or attributed a bump in the polls to prayer—have been flying around the Internet and Facebook. Her debate with Democratic nominee Chris Coons received prime-time treatment on CNN.
Democrats are using that fame, or notoriety, to paint other Republicans with the same Tea Party brush. "O'Donnell's newfound celebrity has been alarming for moderate voters across the country," says Jared Leopold, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "We've seen this effect in numerous races." [See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]
In Pennsylvania, for instance, Democrats say the recent tightening of the Senate race can partly be attributed to the media coverage that O'Donnell has been receiving in Philadelphia, where viewership and TV ads often overlap with those of neighboring Delaware. Former Rep. Pat Toomey, the Republican nominee, still leads Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak, but the lead has narrowed in recent weeks, according to Rasmussen Reports.
In Colorado, Democrats have accused Senate nominee Ken Buck of belonging to the "Palin-O'Donnell fringe" of the GOP, noting a past statement from Buck similar to O'Donnell's denial of a constitutional mandate of the separation of church and state. Polls show both candidates have an even chance of winning.
The attention has affected the money game in Delaware as well. O'Donnell has raised more than $5 million, including thousands of dollars from donors outside the state. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that outside groups have spent more than $1 million to support or oppose her candidacy. The bulk of the outside cash has been used against O'Donnell, with groups, including the DSCC, putting nearly $700,000 in independent expenditures into the fight.
Not everyone agrees that the effect will bleed out of Delaware.
"I think she's become a cultural icon but more as a source of mirth," says Larry Sabato, a political expert at the University of Virginia. He dismissed the notion that Philadelphia voters were being influenced by the O'Donnell-Coons race. "They hear about it. They see it on their local news, not just the national news," Sabato says. "But I've always found that people say, 'That's in another state. Why should I care about that?' " Sabato says that it's unusual for a candidate in a relatively low-profile race to become the villain in the opposing party's national campaign. Normally, parties look for unpopular presidents or party leaders to vilify during the campaign season.
"The Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover for three elections," he says. "The Republicans spent three elections running against Jimmy Carter."
O'Donnell's spell may not last so long.