By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 12:40 AM
Christine O'Donnell, a "tea party"-backed long-shot candidate, stunned the Republican establishment Tuesday night by defeating nine-term Rep. Michael N. Castle in Delaware's GOP Senate primary, one of the most shocking upsets in an already tumultuous primary season.
Her victory, which was almost unthinkable a few weeks ago, provided tea party and grass-roots activists one of their biggest victories of the year. But the defeat of Castle, a former governor and one of the most popular politicians in the state, jeopardized the GOP's once-high hopes of winning the Democratic-held seat in November's midterm election.
O'Donnell is viewed as a far weaker candidate, and Democrats say she is too conservative for the state. But her victory was a reminder of the unpredictable forces at work in politics this year and the power and energy of the antiestablishment sentiment among voters nationwide that could be aimed at Democrats.
Castle has been a fixture in Delaware politics for two decades. He served two terms as governor and nine in the House and was once considered not just a shoo-in for the nomination but also the favorite in November to take away the seat Vice President Biden once occupied.
But an endorsement from former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and support from the Tea Party Express gave O'Donnell a late burst of energy. Despite a strong counterattack from Castle and national and state Republican leaders, O'Donnell won easily, with 53 percent of the vote to Castle's 47.
O'Donnell, who declared "no more politics as usual" in her victory speech, said, "This is more of a cause than a campaign."
Shortly after her victory was projected, Castle told supporters that "the voters in the Republican primary have spoken, and I respect that decision."
The outcome was the latest in a string of embarrassments for the Republican establishment this year, underscoring the civil war that continues to rage in the party. Last month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska lost her primary to political newcomer Joe Miller, who like O'Donnell had the support of Palin and tea party activists. Last spring, tea party forces defeated Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah at the Republican state convention.
Those were the most prominent Republicans to fall to the grass-roots movement that is roiling the party, but hardly the only ones. Establishment-backed candidates in Kentucky, Nevada, Colorado and Connecticut also lost in their primaries, and in Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist bolted the party rather than risk losing the Senate nomination to conservative Marco Rubio.
But in some ways, what happened to Castle was the most shocking of all the races this year. O'Donnell is a perennial candidate - she lost the Senate race to Biden two years ago - who was attacked by the party establishment.
Murkowski was caught by surprise in Alaska, spurning advice from national GOP leaders to take Miller's challenge seriously. That was not the case in Delaware. Murkowski's loss provided a wake-up call to Castle and the Washington GOP establishment. But even a concerted assault on O'Donnell by Castle, Delaware Republican Party Chairman Tom Ross and the National Republican Senatorial Committee could not overcome the momentum and energy of the grass roots.
Castle was the clear favorite to win in November and take the seat Biden held for three decades before he resigned to become President Obama's vice president. Polls showed Castle leading Democrat Chris Coons, the New Castle County executive, and many Democrats considered the seat virtually gone.
Now those calculations are out the window, as exuberant Democrats predicted they would hold the seat and the GOP establishment in Washington weighed whether to shift its resources to other more attractive contests.
A senior Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid view, said the national senatorial committee would "walk" out of the Delaware race.
O'Donnell, interviewed on CNN, brushed off those threats, saying the GOP leaders in Washington "don't have a winning track record." She added, "I'd love their support but I'm going to win without them."
One sign of the demoralization inside the GOP establishment came in the lukewarm news release from NRSC Executive Director Rob Jesmer on Tuesday night: "We congratulate Christine O'Donnell for her nomination this evening after a hard-fought primary campaign in Delaware."
As telling was that Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the NRSC chairman who has been on the losing end of a series of primaries, issued no statement.
Democrats moved quickly to try to paint O'Donnell as unacceptable to the Delaware electorate. "Today the Republican Party has shown just how far right it has moved," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Timothy M. Kaine. He called O'Donnell "a self-aggrandizing and divisive candidate" who favors "failed Republican economic policies."
Democrats will find plenty of ammunition to use against O'Donnell from her fellow Republicans. One example came from Ross, who said earlier that O'Donnell "could not be elected dog catcher" in the state.
But tea party activists said it is time to stand for conservative principles. Before the vote, Amy Kremer, chairman of the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express, said, "If Mike Castle is not the most liberal Republican in Congress right now, he is one of them. He voted for TARP and cap-and-trade, 'cash for clunkers,' I could go on and on. If we send him [back] to Washington, he'll vote with Obama-Reid-Pelosi the majority of the time. At some point you have to stand on principle and stop playing these party politics."
The GOP establishment took another beating in New York in the state's gubernatorial primary. Political newcomer and tea party favorite Carl Paladino trounced former congressman Rick Lazio, who was favored until the final days of the race.
Paladino will face Democratic state Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo in November. Cuomo will begin the race as the heavy favorite.
In another closely watched race, former New Hampshire attorney general Kelly Ayotte, who was considered the establishment choice, was neck and neck with lawyer Ovide Lamontagne in the GOP Senate primary.
The New Hampshire contest did not fit as neatly into the establishment-vs.-tea party mold. Ayotte received support from Palin and several other prominent national conservatives.
Lamontagne was backed by some tea party activists, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and the conservative Union Leader newspaper in Manchester. But he also has long been active on behalf of the state party in New Hampshire and is a lawyer at one of the most prestigious firms in the state.
Lamontagne has a history of upsetting the establishment while running underfunded campaigns. In 1996, he was the surprise winner of the Republican gubernatorial primary, beating a heavily favored establishment candidate. As of late August, he had spent about $400,000 to Ayotte's roughly $2 million.
The crowded field also included businessman Bill Binnie, who had put more than $5 million of his own money toward his candidacy as of the last reports. He sought to portray himself as the moderate alternative in a state with a tradition of moderate Republicanism, but too late to become a real factor, strategists said.
The winner of the Republican Senate primary in New Hampshire will face Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D) in November.
In Massachusetts, the gubernatorial campaign has been heated for months, with three major candidates sparring and with national involvement from the two major parties.
Republicans consider first-term Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D) highly vulnerable and have pinned their hopes on businessman Charlie Baker. The third candidate, independent Tim Cahill, complicates the GOP's hopes of picking up the seat.
In Rhode Island, Republicans have held the governorship for the past 16 years, but that could change this year.
Gov. Donald Carcieri is term-limited and the November election is likely to be a contest between Democrat Frank Caprio, the state treasurer, and former Republican senator Lincoln D. Chafee, who is running as an independent. The GOP primary pitted Carcieri adviser John Robitaille against accountant Victor Moffitt.
In Wisconsin, businessman Ron Johnson won the GOP Senate primary and the right to challenge Sen. Russell Feingold (D) in what is expected to be an unexpectedly close race.
Wisconsin also could see a party change in the governor's mansion
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett faced no opposition in his Democratic primary. Scott Walker, the Milwaukee County executive, won the Republican primary easily.
Staff writer Amy Gardner contributed to this report.