WILMINGTON, Del. — Thanks to the tea party, Rep. Mike Castle's once smooth path to Delaware's Republican Senate nomination suddenly has become less predictable — and is providing a fresh reason for already staggering moderate Republicans everywhere to be frightened.
Castle has been a Delaware favorite for decades. A former governor and, more recently, a veteran congressman, his common-sense, independent approach to politics was expected to give him an easy path to nomination and perhaps victory this fall for the Senate seat held for 36 years by Vice President Joe Biden.
Instead, the tea party, which shocked the political establishment last week with the defeat of a Republican incumbent — Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski — and earlier successes in Nevada, Utah and Kentucky, has turned its attention to Delaware.
Chris Shirey, a respiratory therapist who's the Delaware Tea Party state coordinator, is eagerly pushing Christine O'Donnell, a long-shot conservative commentator whose style and appearance bear some resemblance to Sarah Palin, in the state's Sept. 14 primary.
"I never vote a straight ticket," Shirey said, "but I want smaller government. I liked Castle. I was really trying to convince him."
Instead, she saw him as enabling Democrats to expand government. Now she touts O'Donnell, with a big boost from the national Tea Party Express, which this week said it would spend six figures on ads aimed at boosting the little-known television pundit and marketing consultant.
Observers say it probably won't matter.
"I don't think the tea party is going to make much difference," said Joseph Pika, professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware.
Because Delaware is small state — one can drive from top to bottom in under four hours — once its 900,000 residents find politicians they like, they stick with them for years. "They get to know them by their first name," Pika said.
Castle, 71, started his public career in the Delaware House of Representatives in 1966, served two terms as governor, and as Delaware's lone member of Congress is one of its true centrists. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action last year rated him the most liberal Republican in the House of Representative, voting with them 55 percent of the time. The American Conservative Union said he voted its view 56 percent of the time last year.
That's not nearly enough for the tea party folks, and they want him gone.
"We've had our eye on that seat a long time," said Tea Party Express spokesman Levi Russell. His group was particularly incensed when Castle was one of eight House Republicans to back the Democrats' 2009 climate-change bill.
The tea party movement got a fresh jolt of energy last week, when Fox News and talk radio host Glenn Beck led a massive rally in Washington.
Theresa Garcia, a Dover real estate agent who organized 11 buses from Delaware jammed with 546 people to the march, was excited to meet so many others who were fed up with the Washington establishment. She came home vowing to upend Castle.
"When he sees groups like ours, he turns the other way," she said.
"The Republican Party is picking the candidates we should vote for and I don't like that," said Nancy Dencker, a Newark retiree. Janice Gallagher, a Wyoming legal assistant, who'd been "very much" for Castle in the past, visited him in Washington, asked about health care and found "he wouldn't look people in the eye."
Castle, like every other House Republican, voted against the health-care overhaul.
It's not hard to find longtime Castle loyalists throughout the state. David Dietz, who owns the BBC Tavern and Grill in Greenville, recalled how he and 15 parents and children visited Castle about 10 years ago to push for more funding for juvenile diabetes research.
Dietz's daughter, then 6, showed how she injected insulin into her stomach. Castle was moved, and from then on helped lead a push for more funding.
Others have similar stories. Michelle Cooper, a senior at Wilmington's Tower Hill School, recalled how when Castle visited the school he discussed her college plans. University of Delaware student Dan Voselli made small talk with Castle at a football game. Retiree Anita Sterling of Claymont cited Castle's participation in her city's Christmas parade.
Castle strategists know this campaign is about more than nostalgia, and they're fighting back hard, eager to avoid the mistake Murkowski made when she underestimated tea party favorite — and eventual upset winner — Joe Miller.
"She's not a legitimate candidate," Delaware GOP chairman Tom Ross said of O'Donnell, "and at the end of the day, voters are going to know who she is and they're not going to buy this garbage they're trying to smear Mike Castle with."
Castle's backers paint O'Donnell, 41, as a perennial candidate plagued by financial trouble. She was a distant third in the 2006 Republican Senate primary, and as the nominee against Biden in 2008 got 35 percent of the vote.
O'Donnell foes have cited reports that the Internal Revenue Service earlier this year placed a lien against her for nonpayment of taxes. O'Donnell swings back hard, saying the IRS conceded it made an error. Other questions about her finances have arisen, though.
O'Donnell has some Palin in her. There's a physical resemblance to the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, and their styles are similar. At the Bowers Beach Fire Hall on Wednesday night, O'Donnell bounced into the roomful of 9-12 Delaware Patriots, a conservative-leaning non-partisan group, and heard emcee Russ Murphy compare her to George Washington, who he said got knocked down a lot, too.
O'Donnell started with: "Good evening fellow revolutionaries!"
She vowed to "significantly reduce" the corporate income tax, permanently end the estate tax and push for a two-year tax holiday on capital gains, all aimed at prodding the private sector to invest more and create jobs.
She took on her critics, saying Ross was "slinging mud" and that the news about her IRS troubles were "hysterical."
The Castle team, which had an operative in the room tracking the event, says it's not worried. About 60 percent of Republican voters live in New Castle County (the state has just three), which includes Wilmington and has a history of backing moderate Republicans. Castle has the money and expertise to generate a big turn-out-the-vote effort.
No one really knows how this race will evolve. Like Miller in Alaska, and other upset tea party-backed winners, O'Donnell is different, the anti-politician with the potential to turn out perennial stay-at-home voters.
"We are shaking things up," she beamed as the fire hall crowd embraced her. "This is exciting."
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