By Brian Faler
(Bloomberg) — Delaware Republicans today will decide the latest U.S. Senate primary faceoff pitting a party-backed candidate against a Tea Party insurgent endorsed by Sarah Palin.
U.S. Representative Mike Castle, who polls show would be favored in November's election to win the seat Democrats now hold, is attempting to fend off a charge by Christine O'Donnell. National and state Republican officials have lined up behind Castle, shrugging off his willingness to vote for some Democratic initiatives. They say that in a state President Barack Obama won with 62 percent of the vote, Castle offers Republicans their best chance to gain one of the 10 seats they need to control the Senate.
Six other states, along with the District of Columbia, are holding primaries today in the year's last major round of nomination contests. In New York's Democratic primary, Representative Charlie Rangel is trying to beat back challengers looking to capitalize on his ethics woes and deny him nomination to a 21st term.
Delaware Republican Party Chairman Tom Ross said in an interview an O'Donnell win would be a "complete train wreck" for his party. He also expressed frustration with Palin, the former Alaska governor who was the Republican 2008 vice presidential candidate. "It's just unfortunate that she didn't take the time to give us a call so we could have informed her about the dynamics of this race," said Ross.
The primary follows the loss by Senator Lisa Murkowski in Alaska's Aug. 24 Republican primary to Joe Miller, another candidate supported by Palin Tea Party activists who promote limited government spending.
"Delaware is quite a bit different from the state of Alaska," Ross said. Still, a Sept. 12 Public Policy Polling survey gauged the Castle-O'Donnell race too close to call. "It looks like there's a real possibility of a major upset," said a release by the Raleigh, North Carolina-based polling company.
There is a "growing" if still-outside chance Republicans will take control of the Senate in the Nov. 2 elections, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Democrats currently control the chamber with 59 votes.
The race in Delaware is for the seat Joe Biden first won in 1972 and that he gave up upon being elected vice president in 2008. Ted Kaufman, a former Biden aide who was appointed to seat to replace his former boss, isn't running for a full term.
"It would be Castle's race to lose" if he can survive today's primary, said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "If O'Donnell wins, then that is a game-changing victory that gives Democrats a tremendous opportunity."
The winner will face New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, 47, who is unopposed for the Democratic Senate nomination. The challenge for Castle, 71, is that he is the sort of candidate Tea Party activists have worked against this year: a longtime government official. A former Delaware governor, he has served in the House since 1993, longer than anyone in state history.
Castle backed the 2008 federal bailout for Wall Street, supported legislation that extended hate-crime protections to gays and was one of only eight House Republicans who last year voted for the Democrats' cap-and-trade plan designed to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. That measure stalled in the Senate.
Tea Party Express
The Tea Party Express, a group whose donations helped fuel Miller's win over Murkowski, said it has sought to raise $250,000 in support of O'Donnell, 41. Amy Kremer, head of the group, scoffs at suggestions O'Donnell can't win in November.
"It's like saying because Delaware is a more liberal or moderate state that there's not mainstream Americans living in the state, and that's not true," she said. Palin, weighing in on her Facebook page, said, "we can't afford 'more of the same' in Washington. Christine will help usher in the real change we need."
Murkowski, after her loss, was faulted by some supporters for ignoring the challenge posed by Miller. Castle hasn't hesitated to attack O'Donnell. In a television ad, he faulted her for failing to pay bills at a university she attended, owing back income taxes, defaulting on a mortgage and misusing campaign funds. The National Republican Senatorial Committee also has circulated to reporters news stories critical of O'Donnell.
O'Donnell rejected the ad's charges, saying they're based on "half truths and twisted facts" while acknowledging financial struggles. Writing on her campaign web site, she said "not everyone is as lucky as Mike Castle who has been living on the taxpayer's tab and a cushy government payroll" for decades.
The contest is a so-called closed primary, meaning only registered Republicans may vote in it. "I'd be shocked if O'Donnell actually wins this because Republicans have done to her what they should have done to Joe Miller," said the Cook Political Report's Jennifer Duffy.
Among today's other races, Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty, whose administration spurred an overhaul of the city's public school system that included the firing of more than 200 teachers, is fighting what polls say is an uphill battle for reelection. He faces Vincent Gray, the city's council chairman, in the Democratic primary.In Maryland, former Governor Bob Ehrlich is vying for the
Republican nod to run for his old job against another Palin-and Tea Party-endorsed candidate, businessman Brian Murphy. Rhode Islanders will pick the contenders to replace retiring Representative Patrick Kennedy, a Democrat who is the last of the family dynasty in Congress. New Hampshire voters will pick a Republican to challenge Democratic Representative Carol Shea-Porter, who analysts rank as among her party's most vulnerable incumbents, as well as nominees for the seat of retiring Senator Judd Gregg, a Republican.