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In Delaware, frustration with Republican Party led to Christine O'Donnell's win

By Amy Gardner and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 11:35 PM

DOVER, DEL. - Long before Sarah Palin endorsed Christine O'Donnell and the Tea Party Express sent a last-minute surge of cash and manpower to help her win the GOP Senate nod in Delaware, conservatives here decided they had had enough of Rep. Michael N. Castle and the Republican Party establishment.

A sentiment had taken hold that party elders weren't listening, weren't true to conservative beliefs and assumed that everyone who votes Republican would go along with their decisions, just as they always had.

"There's been a feeling for many years, a frustration over the idea that the party's trying to tell everyone all the time, 'Here's who you need to vote for' and 'Here's who you should follow,' " said Bill Colley, the host of a local conservative radio talk show, who stopped by the Georgetown Family Restaurant on Wednesday afternoon. "This resentment has been roiling for years, and the pot boiled over this year. There is no Republican Party anymore in the state of Delaware."

For the national political world, Castle's primary defeat by O'Donnell, an unknown candidate with questionable credentials, means a sudden dampening of the GOP's chances to take over the Senate - and another rift within the party. It also puts national leaders on notice that, even in moderate Delaware, the anger of the "tea party" movement is a force they can't ignore.

But for Republican voters here, the race was simply a chance for the aggrieved to send a message to their oppressors. The fact that Castle and national GOP leaders were stunned by the result only proved their point.

"We just had a belief that we could beat the heck out of the GOP," said Lynn Brennan of Rehoboth, who helped form the Delaware Conservative Coalition this summer. "The way [Delaware GOP Chairman] Tom Ross has treated the conservatives in this state - oh, my Lord. No true conservative could come up through the ranks of the GOP, because Mike Castle and Tom Ross wouldn't let them."

O'Donnell won decisively Tuesday despite an aggressive campaign by state and national Republicans, including Ross, to defeat her. She had run for Senate twice before, against then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., and although she earned the support of the state GOP then, she was not viewed as a credible candidate and lost overwhelmingly.

O'Donnell is a marketing consultant and a longtime advocate for such social issues as abstinence before marriage and making abortion illegal - issues that do not typically resonate with Delaware's moderate electorate. She has weathered a string of personal financial setbacks, including the near-foreclosure of her home, an IRS lien and a lawsuit from her alma mater for failure to pay expenses. She has also misspoken repeatedly on the campaign trail, including claiming that she won two of the state's three counties when she ran against Biden, though she won none.

A miscalculation

During the primary contest, the state Republican Party attacked her sharply for her money problems and her misstatements. They barred her campaign from using county GOP offices.

But they miscalculated their own credibility with primary voters, who, as Rush Limbaugh said on his radio talk show Wednesday, believe that "every politician's got a character problem."

In this difficult economy, voters in Delaware felt sympathetic to O'Donnell's financial troubles - especially when juxtaposed with Castle's long career in politics, including nine terms in Congress and stints as governor, lieutenant governor and state lawmaker.

"You know what got me? She's down to Earth. She's on the street. She's been there," said Fred Drake Sr., a retired salvage company owner who was eating lunch at the Kirby & Holloway Family Restaurant in Dover on Wednesday. Added Betty Drake, his wife, who also voted for O'Donnell: "What we're going through, the foreclosures - that doesn't upset me at all."

There's no dispute that Palin's endorsement, along with that of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), helped O'Donnell in the final days. Palin's recorded phone calls went to thousands of homes. The Sacramento-based Tea Party Express spent more than $200,000 on broadcast and newspaper ads as well as mailings and e-mail blasts. The group also mobilized its "phone from home" volunteers, who called Delaware homes from their own living rooms across the country - a grass-roots effort that has boosted tea party candidates in Utah, Nevada and Alaska as well.

But the grass roots had already found purchase in Delaware, said Brennan, whose conservative coalition hosted a picnic in July at Sam Yoder's Farm in Houston, Del., expecting 300 attendees - 1,200 people came. Former senator George Allen (R-Va.) spoke, Brennan said.

"It's been building probably since the 9/12 march last year," she said. "We all came back here, and we realized there were a whole bunch of people just like us, from here, feeling the exact same way."

It's unclear what the full impact of O'Donnell's win will be on state and national Republican operations.

Even as a number of national GOP leaders, including Karl Rove, continued to criticize O'Donnell - and dismiss any chance of her beating Democrat Chris Coons in November - others were lining up behind her and pledging financial support. Her Web site boasted that she had raised $750,000 by late Wednesday, an indication that she's likely to have enough money to compete.

'Gone Old Party'

The Delaware GOP is not on board yet. While local activists and Tea Party Express leaders called for Ross's resignation Wednesday, the party's Web page was still loaded with attacks on O'Donnell.

Ross declined to say in a phone interview whether he will heed the calls to step down, nor would he say what the party is doing to retool its efforts to get behind O'Donnell. "That's something we're trying to coordinate with the RNC," he said, adding that he planned to issue a statement Thursday.

One thing seems certain: If the GOP doesn't change, these activists will stay away. Stephen B. Hyle, a tea party organizer, renounced his Republican affiliation Wednesday morning and became an independent. The GOP in Delaware, he joked, now stands for "Gone Old Party."

Hyle said he hopes that O'Donnell becomes the poster girl for disgruntled Republicans around the country and that the momentum of this week will carry her to victory. He acknowledged that she may not win, but he said that isn't really the point.

"This campaign was certainly about her, but the wave she is riding is to send a message to the parties that you should no longer dictate your will on the people," he said. "It was to punish not only Castle but the Republican Party in Delaware and the national Republican Party."

gardnera@washpost.com sandhya@washpost.com

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