O'Donnell's victory in Del. highlights tension in tea party groups

Christine O'Donnell, a "tea party"-backed insurgent candidate, stunned the GOP establishment by beating nine-term Rep. Mike Castle for the Delaware Senate nomination.
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 4:02 PM

Republican Christine O'Donnell's decisive Senate primary win in Delaware on Tuesday did more than position the "tea party" movement against the GOP establishment. It pitted the tea party against itself.

O'Donnell's stunning victory over nine-term Rep. Mike Castle came after a late boost of support from Tea Party Express and conservative heroes Sarah Palin and U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Perhaps just as notably, however, O'Donnell won without a nod from two other conservative players that have had a hand in some of the year's biggest tea party wins: FreedomWorks and Club for Growth.

That dynamic highlights the tension between some of the conservative forces at work this year. Some say defeating a moderate like Castle is the key to restoring conservative principles within the Republican Party. Others say such principles do no good if the party nominates candidates who can't win in November. O'Donnell's win Tuesday, they say, gives Democrats a new shot at holding Delaware's Senate seat - and probably puts a Republican takeover of the Senate out of reach.

Conservatives in the latter camp said Tuesday they declined to endorse O'Donnell because they didn't think she could win the seat in November against Democrat Chris Coons, the New Castle County executive. O'Donnell is a three-time Senate candidate with a history of financial problems; she also has made a number of misstatements during the campaign, including a claim that she won two of Delaware's three counties against then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 2008, when she won none.

"We're not sure what she stands for," said David Keating, executive director of Club for Growth, a group that helped propel fiscally conservative tea party candidates to victories in Utah and Nevada. "Clearly there appears to be some personal baggage that she has, too. . . . We looked at it and said, 'Well, it's possible, I suppose,' but there are a lot of other places where we'd have a much better chance of having our money make an impact and actually get a win."

FreedomWorks leaders said much the same this week.

But Amy Kremer, chairman of Sacramento-based Tea Party Express, dismissed the probability of an O'Donnell loss in November, noting that such conventional wisdom proved wrong in the case of Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts, who won a special election in January, and Sharron Angle in Nevada, who remains neck and neck with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D).

Even if a Castle win in November were likelier, it wouldn't have gotten conservatives any closer to blocking the Obama agenda, Kremer added - which is the most powerful reason of all to support O'Donnell, she said.

"We need to stand on principle," Kremer said. "If Mike Castle is not the most liberal Republican in Congress right now, he's one of them. He voted for TARP, cap and trade, cash for clunkers, I could go on and on. If we send him to Washington, he'll vote with Obama-Reid the majority of the time. We might get one vote out of him."

What remains to be seen is whether conservatives and even more established Republican leaders embrace O'Donnell now that she is their nominee. The National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a terse congratulatory statement Tuesday. But Wednesday morning the group's chairman, Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), announced a $42,000 donation to O'Donnell's campaign.

"We remain committed to holding Democrat nominee New Castle County Executive Chris Coons accountable this November, as we inform voters about his record of driving his county to the brink of bankruptcy and supporting his party's reckless spending policies in Washington," Cornyn said in a statement.

What conservative groups who stayed out of the primary will do is less clear.

"Can she win the general?" asked Brendan Steinhauser, a spokesman for FreedomWorks, in an e-mail Tuesday after O'Donnell's victory. "And what will FreedomWorks do? Guess we will discuss all this manana."

Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.

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