Updated: 10:36 p.m.
Christine O’Donnell and the Tea Party Express shocked the Republican establishment in Washington and Delaware alike Tuesday night, winning the First State’s GOP Senate primary and effectively ensuring the seat will remain in Democratic hands come November.
The Associated Press called the race just after 9 p.m. for O’Donnell, who earned 53 percent of the vote compared with 47 percent for Rep. Mike Castle.
“The last several weeks have been spirited to say the least,” Castle told supporters at his election night gathering, his teary wife at his side. “The voters in the Republican primary have spoken, and I respect that decision.”
O’Donnell’s victory almost certainly hands the general election to New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D). Republicans don’t plan to spend money to contest the race with O’Donnell claiming the nomination, because they do not view her as a viable candidate who can appeal to the broader electorate.
“A lot of people have already said that we can’t win the general election,” O’Donnell said during her victory speech, as she was interrupted with “Yes we can!” chants. “It will be hard work, but we can win. And if those same people who fought against me work just as hard for me, we will win. … We have to unite for the greater good for what is good for America.”
Had he survived the primary, Castle, a former governor and longtime Congressman, would have been the frontrunner to defeat Coons.
Following a string of upsets by tea party-backed Senate candidates in Kentucky, Nevada, Colorado and Alaska, the Delaware race tested the clout of the conservative movement in the Northeast, a region where Republicans must make substantial gains to reclaim majorities in the House or Senate. And in some ways, Tuesday’s contest showcased the GOP’s identity crisis amid intense pressure from the right.
Democrats delighted in the defeat of another establishment-backed candidate and used Republicans’ own words to demonstrate how unlikely it is that O’Donnell will be embraced by party leaders now that she is the nominee.
“Delaware Republicans chose an ultra-right wing extremist who is out of step with Delaware values. Christine O’Donnell cares more about imposing an extreme social doctrine than addressing the challenges facing working people,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez said in a statement. “Even the Delaware Republican Party Chairman has said O’Donnell is not a viable candidate for any office in the state of Delaware,’ and could not be elected dog catcher.'”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which had vigorously supported Castle, released a one-sentence statement in reaction to O’Donnell’s victory.
“We congratulate Christine O’Donnell for her nomination this evening after a hard-fought primary campaign in Delaware,” NRSC Executive Director Rob Jesmer said.
O’Donnell and her tea party supporters knocked Castle earlier in the week as “King RINO, the most liberal GOP member of Congress.”
“We have gone all in,” Tea Party Express spokesman Levi Russell said before polls closed Tuesday. The group is an arm of the national movement and sent a team to Delaware for about a week, organizing rallies, phone banking and spending as much as $250,000 to help O’Donnell. “We think we’ve done everything we can to put the spotlight on Christine,” he added.
But in a state where less than 30 percent of voters are registered Republicans, the Delaware GOP waged all-out war against O’Donnell and the tea party in recent days. After repeated accusations that O’Donnell was dishonest on the campaign trail and irresponsible in her personal finances, the state party disseminated an eleventh-hour robocall Tuesday featuring former O’Donnell campaign manager Kristin Murray.
“As O’Donnell’s manager, I found out she was living on campaign donations, using them for rent and personal expenses, while leaving her workers unpaid and piling up thousands in debt,” Murray said in the recording. “She wasn’t concerned about conservative causes. O’Donnell just wanted to make a buck. That’s why I left and why I won’t trust O’Donnell with my hard-earned tax dollars.”