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Could Christine O'Donnell Actually Win the Senate Seat in Delaware?

3 years ago
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Masturbation, witchcraft and, most recently, her rejection of Hare Krishna due to a love of meatballs, have dominated coverage about Christine O'Donnell since her stunning upset victory in the Republican primary in Delaware. But beyond the dismissive headlines and the late-night jokes, could the Tea Party favorite actually win the Senate seat that once belonged to Vice President Joe Biden?

The initial reaction was a resounding No.

"Not a viable candidate for any office in the state of Delaware," sniffed state Republican Party Chairman Tom Ross after his choice, moderate Congressman Mike Castle, was toppled by the Christian conservative. His assessment was echoed by the local GOP establishment and party heavyweights like Karl Rove. All lamented that what was seen by many as a slam-dunk pick-up for Castle against Democratic New Castle County Executive Chris Coons now amounted to a lost opportunity in blue-hued Delaware.

But now some political observers are saying Maybe.

"Under normal circumstances," the Nov. 2 election is Coons' to lose, said Edward Ratledge, director of the University of Delaware's Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research. But in a year when O'Donnell is only the latest Tea Party outsider to topple an established candidate, these are hardly normal circumstances.

"I don't think you can write anything off," said Ratledge, among many who missed the boat in failing to predict O'Donnell's primary rout.

Ron Williams, a columnist for Delaware's largest newspaper, the News Journal in Wilmington, wrote that if O'Donnell "gets on the daily stump, she'll make a formidable opponent for Chris Coons." He noted that, "Besides all the college credits, debts, gainful employment and Bill Maher archive baggage O'Donnell is lugging around, she has all the prerequisites for a statewide candidate: articulate, attractive, comfortable with the cameras and microphones (she's been doing it for years), and strong convictions for her far-right, wacky positions."

Yes, Williams wrote, O'Donnell is "still a kooky candidate," but Coons would dismiss her fundraising abilities and Tea Party connections at his peril. He notes that she has "raised, or had pledged, some $2.7 million and counting."

Money has poured into O'Donnell's coffers since the primary. In a memo Monday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee admitted Delaware is "a tough blue state for Republicans" but crowed that "O'Donnell raised more money in one week than Chris Coons did in over six months." The campaign committee promised to be up with TV ads on her behalf soon.

Political prognosticators immediately switched Delaware into the blue column upon O'Donnell's victory, but operatives in both parties now take a more cautious approach. Rove was forced to backtrack on his criticism of O'Donnell. Stunned Republican leaders eventually fell in behind her candidacy even as conservative Sen. Jim DeMint's outfit went on the air with a spot touting O'Donnell's defiance of "party bosses" and tying Coons to Washington insiders.

At first, Democrats could barely contain their giddiness at the primary results -- Coons had been widely written off as a loser in a head-to-head contest with Castle. But now some grudgingly give O'Donnell her due.

"Sure she can win," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist and former Democratic Senate staffer. "This is a year a deadbeat fabulist who channels Sarah Palin can certainly appeal to a nihilistic electorate."

Other Democrats are no longer laughing, even as Coons enjoys a double-digit lead in polls in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 100,000.

She "should be taken seriously," warned Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, who turned down Democratic Party pleas to run for his father's old Senate seat. O'Donnell is one of "a new batch of extreme Republican candidates" who aim to repeal health care and other reforms, warned Delaware native and former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe in a fund-raising letter to Democrats.

"We don't take anything for granted this cycle," said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The DSCC is running TV ads attacking O'Donnell for spending campaign money on personal expenses and failing to pay taxes or employees.

Democrats hope their message resonates with Delaware's 150,000 independent voters, whose support will be critical.

"If you have a disinterested group of people who don't go to the polls and they happen to be Democrats, that opens up a possibility if the Republicans are very aggressive and if the independents split toward the Republicans," Ratledge said. He doubts the vote will hinge on qualifications, a sore point for O'Donnell.

"This is not one of those clinical-type decisions where you are looking at the resume," he said. "It will depend whether people vote based upon emotion -- 'I've been out of work six months and those guys in Washington aren't doing anything and we need to send fresh blood down there to kick butt.' "

Joseph Pika, a political scientist at the University of Delaware in Newark, said O'Donnell faces "a very tough task" to win.

"She has to overcome a major advantage in Democratic registrations and unhappiness within the Republican Party among Castle supporters. Although Castle will not run a write-in campaign, he has pointedly refused to endorse her candidacy and Democrats have been making a conscious effort to sing Castle's praises," he said.

Pika enumerated the hurdles ahead for O'Donnell.

"To win, she would need: 1) large numbers of Democrats -- unprecedented numbers -- to stay at home and not vote; 2) large numbers of Democrats to support her as a viable candidate, something that has not happened twice before when she ran; 3) a major embarrassment to become public for the Democratic candidate, Coons; 4) voters getting past the many stories about O'Donnell's past and her credentials as a candidate," he said. "She does have lots of money now which will enable her to run aggressive mail and ad campaigns, but Delaware is not an especially media-intensive state."

Nathan Gonzalez of the Rothenberg Political Report said O'Donnell has yet to prove she can broaden her appeal to independent and Democratic voters.

"She was able to win the primary by boosting conservative turnout, but that's not enough to win a statewide general election in Delaware, particularly in a state where Obama received over 60 percent of the vote," he said. "Let's not forget that she ran for the Senate two years ago and got 35 percent. I think she'll do better than that this year, but it's a long way to 50 percent."

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