By Amy Gardner
Monday, September 13, 2010; 3:21 AM
WILMINGTON, DEL. - It's the "tea party" vs. the Republican Party in Tuesday's Senate primary in Delaware, where a popular moderate is suddenly under siege from a little-known conservative who in any other year might have been relegated to the footnotes of 2010's election records.
That's not an entirely unfamiliar narrative in a year in which tea party organizations have ousted two incumbent senators. But Christine O'Donnell's battle with Rep. Mike Castle perhaps embodies the movement's greatest test, because unlike in other races in which the GOP has offered the tea party an awkward embrace, the Republican Party is fighting back.
The reason, state GOP officials argue, is that O'Donnell is simply unqualified to hold office. A two-time losing candidate against then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. - whose old seat she and Castle are seeking - O'Donnell has a history of financial difficulties documented in the Wilmington News Journal that includes an IRS lien, a near-foreclosure on her mortgage and a dispute with her alma mater for not paying college expenses. She has a tiny campaign operation and, for most of the year, she received virtually no grass-roots financial support within Delaware.
What O'Donnell has is the backing of Sarah Palin, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and the Tea Party Express. Their support has put her on the national political map not to mention within striking distance of upsetting Castle on Tuesday.
Her Republican critics say she would be almost certain to lose, in moderate Delaware, against Democrat Chris Coons in November. That raises the stakes for those in the tea party who are bent on reforming the GOP, even if it means losing seats. It also raises the question of whether the uncomfortable alliance between the tea party and the GOP is coming to an end.
"It is just unbelievable that you would have folks from out of state who know nothing about Delaware, nothing about Christine O'Donnell and nothing about the dynamics of this state to come in and associate themselves with this person," said Tom Ross, chairman of the Republican Party of Delaware and one of O'Donnell's most outspoken critics.
"Quite frankly, I don't know what the goal is here," he continued. "If they really want to see conservatives as chairmen of committees in the United States Senate, they'd step back and allow Mike Castle to become the next United States senator. He'll win the general election. She won't."
Ross thinks Castle will win, and Castle himself said in an interview on Sunday that his internal polling shows that he is "fine." But they are taking nothing for granted in a year when Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah and, more recently, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, were blindsided by angry tea party organizations who saw them as too moderate and denied them their party's nomination.
On Sunday morning, Castle, 71, hustled from one community event to another, shaking hands at a fundraising walk to fight heart disease, a Puerto Rican community parade and an arts festival at a downtown park in Wilmington. After 44 years in politics, including stints in the state legislature and as governor as well as nine terms in Congress, Castle is well-known and well-liked.
But he has drawn much of his support over the years from independents and Democrats who can't vote in Tuesday's Republican primary. Ensuring high Republican turnout, his allies assert, is the key to a Castle win, and it is not at all assured.
"You belong in that Senate seat!" cheered Lorelei Hunt, a New Castle resident who greeted Castle at the Brandywine Festival of the Arts in Wilmington on Sunday. But Hunt is a registered Democrat, and she can't vote Tuesday. Her mother, Marilyn, said: "I'm going to register so I can vote" - until her daughter reminded her that it was too late to do so. "I guess I didn't realize O'Donnell was going to be a real threat," Marilyn Hunt said.
A visit to O'Donnell's campaign office in a modest townhouse in suburban Wilmington revealed about a half-dozen volunteers chatting and working the phones. Most were from out of state, they said.
An afternoon of door-to-door campaigning was planned for Sunday afternoon, but it was advertised online not by the campaign but by California-based Tea Party Express, which has pledged to spend up to $250,000 in the race. O'Donnell was visiting a church in Newark, and the media were barred from joining her, said her spokeswoman, Michelle Lauren.
In a telephone interview on Sunday afternoon, O'Donnell said she is running to provide Delaware voters with a clear alternative to Castle, whose moderate votes include supporting the bank bailout in 2008 and the "cap and trade" carbon emissions bill last year.
O'Donnell has a long history of advocacy on culturally conservative issues; she was a leader of a group called Saviors Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT), which advocated abstinence before marriage. Now she is a media consultant, she said.
O'Donnell said the focus by Castle and the state GOP focus on some of her personal difficulties represent an effort to divert attention from his record. But when asked about that record, she suggested that Castle had voted for last year's stimulus bill, which he hadn't.
"We need to stop the wasteful spending," O'Donnell said. "When we get behind bills like the multiple stimulus bills that my opponent has supported, when we get to that place, there's no way that we can keep it going."
O'Donnell has misspoken on other occasions. In one recorded speech, she said she beat Biden in two of Delaware's three counties in 2008. Asked about that remark in a radio interview last week, she said that all she had said was that she had tied him. State records show that she lost all three counties.
O'Donnell also has said that she sold her house in a private sale. Court records show that her mortgage company had secured a default judgment against her.
O'Donnell's financial struggles may actually be helping her in a year when many Americans can relate.
"Christine O'Donnell is just an ordinary citizen, and that's what I like about her," said Greg Gergen, a Wilmington Republican who said he will vote for O'Donnell. "To me, Castle is part of the problem. He's a professional politician. He's part of the status quo."