The upset defeat of long-time congressman and former governor Mike Castle by Christine O’Donnell in the Delaware Republican senatorial primary on September 14 revealed more about the frustrations of conservative voters with the GOP establishment than about the strengths of a long-shot Tea Party candidate. If ever there existed a Republican state leadership that fit the stereotypical country-club image, it would be the one in Delaware.
I vividly recall a disagreement I had with John Burris, the GOP’s nominee for governor in 2000. In a public debate days before, he had claimed to be the genuine “pro-choice” candidate. When I challenged his pro-abortion stance, the best he could do was point to his opposition to partial-birth abortion. He was unable to explain how his contradictory position made any sense, and neither could voters that year. On another occasion, at GOP headquarters in 2004, a party official insisted that only “moderate” candidates like Arlen Specter could win statewide office in Pennsylvania. She was forced to concede, however, that her position did not account for the other sitting senator, Republican Rick Santorum. The fact that Santorum lost his 2006 reelection bid had much to do with the demoralization of his base following his endorsement of Specter over Pat Toomey in the senatorial primary, a race the latter would have won had the party establishment not intervened. Now Specter is gone, and Toomey is poised to win statewide office in Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, O’Donnell had moved to Delaware in 2003 to work for the conservative nonprofit Intercollegiate Studies Institute (my former employer). Previously, she was a talking head on several cable news programs. What was striking about her tenure at ISI was her inflated belief in her own importance. Convinced of her celebrity status, she was not content to work for a company that forced her to function in a hierarchy that limited her independence. She would be gone from the office for days on end without anyone knowing where she was. Furthermore, she reacted poorly when required to report to a younger male coworker (who had several years’ seniority over her) when her supervisor went on sabbatical to complete his Ph.D. Her insistence on equal female representation in the images of those who appeared on the organization’s 50th-anniversary video history reflected both the liberal bias of the expensive New York production company she hired as well as her own feminist presuppositions about “what looked right.” Her time spent working for another company during office hours led to her termination and a baseless $6.95 million “gender discrimination” lawsuit against ISI in 2005. But for someone with an inflated self-importance, the lawsuit was an entirely predictable response. Ever since her dismissal, she has eyed a Senate seat; a lower office was too low for her. Her financial problems, involving the failure to pay $12,000 in federal taxes in 2005 and defaulting on house payments in 2007, suggest an unwillingness to pursue employment options that do not offer the public attention she craves. In the pursuit of a Senate seat, she spent years cultivating a network of volunteers that would come to her aid every time she ran for office.
Since the GOP establishment refused to give the electorate a real choice by offering a serious challenge to the Democratic candidates, frustrated Delaware Republican voters had no option but to pick a candidate that would truly represent them, despite her many personal flaws. Indeed, it is an indictment of the party establishment that one of its favorites would be so thoroughly rejected by the rank and file. After years of voting for Castle as the lesser of two evils, Delaware conservatives finally had enough. Rush Limbaugh’s endorsement of O’Donnell helped her cause. He acknowledged on his radio show that some conservatives did not like O’Donnell because of her lawsuit against ISI. Then he admitted that he knew nothing about ISI before the whole controversy arose, which tells us much about the bubble he lives in.
On matters of policy, O’Donnell is saying the right things. Whether she’s up to the task is yet to be determined. (Joe Biden wasn’t, and look where he ended up.) To say that O’Donnell has a big ego isn’t much of an indictment, given what we know about past and present members of Congress. To paraphrase FDR, O’Donnell may be an egomaniac, but to disenchanted grassroots Republican voters, she’s their egomaniac.
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