By Chris Slaven: When Rep. Michael Castle lost to conservative challenger Christine O’Donnell in Delaware’s Republican primary election last week, political analysts scrambled for answers. The unthinkable, the impossible, had happened; Castle had never lost an election in the First State since his first campaign for State Representative in 1966. In the following decades, he held nearly every elected office in the state, and was thought by all to be a shoo-in candidate when he decided to run for the Senate seat formerly held by Vice President Joseph Biden.
Commentators point to Castle’s embarrassing voting record, and his liberal stance on social issues like abortion, as they try to figure out how a Tea Party candidate with virtually no money managed to take down a well-funded veteran politician who had the full backing of the state Republican Party, but it is apparent to Delaware voters that those looking into this tiny state from the outside simply don’t get it.
To understand why O’Donnell was able to win last week, one must first know a bit about the complex political situation in Delaware. There are three counties; New Castle is small, heavily populated, and very liberal (this is Castle’s home turf), Kent is home to the state capital, Dover, and has both liberal and conservative elements, and Sussex is mostly rural and strongly conservative. New Castle governs the rest of the state, and the Republicans of that county are more liberal than the Democrats of Sussex.
Castle did most of his campaigning in left-leaning New Castle, attending a few local festivals, and on one occasion shaking hands at the University of Delaware before a big football game. He rarely visited Sussex, refused to be interviewed on the county’s lone talk radio station, ignored conservative groups like the 9-12 Delaware Patriots, and generally made no effort to connect to conservative Republican voters outside of his home county.
O’Donnell also hails from New Castle, but she campaigned vigorously in all three counties, embraced the state’s growing Tea Party movement, regularly appeared on conservative talk shows, and actively sought endorsements from out-of-state celebrities like Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity (which she eventually received). While the Castle campaign and GOP were sneering at O’Donnell and telling the press that she wasn’t a serious candidate, she was meeting voters in the conservative region of Delaware. Some of these Republicans had never met Castle, in all of his years in office, but now they enjoyed frequent contact with his enthusiastic opponent.
Does the average voter support a career politician that he never sees, or an upbeat challenger who seeks him out? For the answer, ask Mike Castle.
This is not to say that Castle’s loss was solely the result of geographic rivalry. He had long been called a RINO (Republican in name only) even by those who voted for him, and one effect of the state’s Tea Party movement has been to nudge many of its Republican participants towards an uncompromising blend of constitutional conservatism and libertarianism.
Much has been made of O’Donnell’s supposed inability to defeat the Democratic nominee, Chris Coons, who Castle would have beaten easily. For giving up an easy win in favor of an uphill battle, her supporters have been criticized by prominent voices on the right like Karl Rove and Charles Krauthammer. What these critics don’t seem to understand is that O’Donnell’s supporters do not care. Many viewed their votes as retaliation for years of being snubbed by Castle and the state Republican Party, and are not likely to regret their decision if Coons wins the Senate seat in November.
The lesson from Delaware is simple, or should be. Republican politicians can no longer afford to alienate conservative voters, even in blue states. The winds of revolution are blowing with hurricane strength, and those who stand in the way of the people are likely to find themselves blown into early retirement, just like Mike Castle.
Chris Slavens is a libertarian columnist. He lives in Sussex County, Delaware.
This column was published by the Review Messenger on September 22.
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