A last-minute surge by a Tea Party candidate has threatened to upend Delaware’s GOP Senate primary Tuesday, adding to the concerns of a fractured Republican Party as it seeks to win congressional seats in November.
The latest poll shows Republican establishment candidate Mike Castle, a nine-term House moderate, statistically tied with conservative Christine O’Donnell, who has support and financial backing of the Tea Party movement.
The Public Policy Polling Survey released Monday showed O’Donnell leading Castle 47 to 44 percent, a difference that is within the margin of error. It’s a stunning development; just a week ago, O’Donnell trailed Castle by 8 points in a Rasmussen poll, and she had never been considered a serious threat to win the nomination.
O’Donnell has benefited from a last-minute endorsement from Sarah Palin, whose support helped underdog candidates win Senate primaries in Kentucky, Nevada and Alaska.
“The momentum is definitely in O’Donnell’s direction, so if that keeps going, she could win by an even bigger margin,” said Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling. “It could go either way, but I wouldn’t be surprised if O’Donnell wins by 10.”
For months, Castle was the presumed victor in the race to fill the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden, leading Democrat Chris Coons by double digits in most general election polls.
But O’Donnell has been aggressively attacking Castle as a “Republican In Name Only,” pointing out his vote in favor of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout bill as well as a climate change bill in the House that would put a price on carbon emissions.
Similar tactics have worked for Tea Party candidates in other Republican primaries.
In Alaska, for instance, Tea Party candidate Joe Miller ousted the more moderate Sen. Lisa Murkowski in an August GOP primary. Murkowski is now threatening to stay in the race, which could split the Republican vote and give the Democratic senate candidate the advantage in November.
In Nevada, Palin and the Tea Party provided a last-minute spark to the campaign of conservative Sharron Angle. She beat the more moderate Republican, Sue Lowden, but has proved to be a weak general election candidate and has not achieved the double-digit lead Lowden held over the Democratic opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid and Angle are now tied in the polls.
The Delaware GOP is eager to avoid a repeat of Nevada and Alaska. The party has aggressively attacked O’Donnell over her financial problems, including money owed to the IRS. State Republicans have also filed an official complaint over O’Donnell’s collaboration with the Tea Party Express, which has spent $300,000 on the race.
Republicans, eager to take over a seat long held by the Democrats, fear O’Donnell is too weak politically to beat Coons, particularly in a blue state. A Rasmussen poll released last week showed her trailing Coons by 11 points. The poll also showed that 39 percent of those responding viewed O’Donnell favorably, compared with 67 percent for Castle.
“If O’Donnell wins, the Democrats’ candidate will get an enormous boost,” University of Delaware political science professor Joseph Pika said.
“Moderate Republicans are unlikely to support her, and Coons will look like the moderate candidate.”