Posted: Sept. 14, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Mike Castle went down hard in a preposterous upset of historic proportions and took the leadership structure of the Delaware Republican Party with him.

The run of arguably the most successful Republican here -- with 12 statewide terms as lieutenant governor, governor and congressman -- was ended at the hands of his own party Tuesday in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate by Christine O'Donnell, the darling of an out-of-state conservative movement including Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party Express.

O'Donnell took the race 53 percent to 47 percent to set up a contest in the general election against Chris Coons, New Castle County's Democratic executive.

Coons instantly and improbably becomes the favorite in this Democratic-trending state for the seat that Joe Biden left behind for the vice presidency and gives the Democrats some unexpected wiggle room in the fierce contest to keep the Senate majority.

Castle fell to the most fatal fallacy in Delaware politics, a supremely successful officeholder going one race too long.

It happened to Caleb Boggs, the Republican senator who lost in what had been regarded as the most surprising upset in state history to Biden, then a New Castle County councilman, in 1972. It happened to Bill Roth, another Republican senator defeated in 2000 by Tom Carper, the Democratic governor at the time.

"The voters spoke in the primary, and I respect it," Castle said.

The Republican leadership was as serious a loser. After seeing the party's  holdings dwindle to two out of nine statewide offices and the minority in both houses of the General Assembly, it staked its comeback on moderate candidates, but it did not work.

Not only did Castle fall, but so did Michele Rollins, a Greenville businesswoman who narrowly lost the congressional nomination to Glen Urquhart, a Sussex County developer running to her right.

Like the Republican senatorial primary, the Republican congressional primary makes a favorite out of the Democratic candidate, in this case former Lt. Gov. John Carney.

The disquiet in the land cost other incumbents their posts. Velda Jones-Potter, the Democratic state treasurer appointed by Gov. Jack Markell to replace himself, is gone, too, defeated by Chip Flowers, a lawyer from Middletown. The Republican candidate is Colin Bonini, a state senator from Dover.

Mike Walsh, New Castle County's Democratic sheriff for 30 years, also is out, and so is state Rep. Hazel Plant, a Wilmington Democrat.

Ironically, Castle's campaign did exactly what it planned to do -- turning out Republican primary voters at a record level, only to see it backfire. The turnout of 32 percent was the second highest since Delaware began to hold primaries, instead of conventions, for statewide nominations.

As O'Donnell put it, "No more politics as usual!"

Castle ran in only one other primary, the one for the 1992 congressional nomination, and it was surprisingly close. Although he was the two-term governor and the state was incumbent-happy at the time, he polled only 56 percent of the vote against Janet Rzewnicki, then the state treasurer, and two other candidates.

That outcome raises a question. Maybe there has been all along a subterranean strain of Republicans who have been dissatisfied with Castle, only they had no way to express it and their existence was masked by his popularity in the general election voter pool, which also included Democrats and independents.

Castle acknowledged he gave it some thought. "I don't know if anything then [in 1992] is a carryover now," he said.

The Castle-O'Donnell primary was Delaware's first experience with an Internet frenzy, gobs and gobs of cascading commentary and video gushing everywhere.

It was as silly as O'Donnell's endorsement from Sarah Palin arriving by Tweet and as sick as a death threat e-mailed from out of state to Tom Ross, the Republican state chair, but it was powerful.

It is worth noting there actually was supposed to be an Internet frenzy for the Senate race, but not for the nomination. It was supposed to come in a showdown between Castle and Beau Biden, except the Democratic attorney general opted to run for re-election, not his father's old seat.

Ultimately all the confusion and all the bedlam shook the state's trademark equilibrium. The Republicans upended the candidate who had been entrusted with statewide office for 30 years and anointed the one who styled herself a Sarah Palin doppelganger.