Posted: Sept. 17, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Republican regulars were worried not quite a year ago their party would flounder if Mike Castle retired instead of running for the Senate.

Who knew it was going to happen either way?

Castle was taken out in the Republican senatorial primary Tuesday with such a vengeance, it was like the tea partiers had come up with their own Madame Defarge in Christine O'Donnell.

Madame Defarge knitted, and the guillotined heads in France rolled. Updated, she probably would be the birther who turned Castle's town hall meeting into a YouTube viral video with her little U.S. flag and her own birth certificate and her cry, "I want my country back!"

Castle's undoing was more than the departure of a lone political figure. All of them go eventually. Even when it is someone like Castle, with 30 years as lieutenant governor, governor and congressman, the state squares itself and moves on.

There is more to it this time. Castle's loss shook Delaware politics to its core.

People in office took a look at the rampaging anti-government, anti-incumbent vote that just forced its way in here and gulped. If it could happen to Castle, it could happen to anyone.

The dirtiest word of this campaign season could be "re-elect."

The Senate primary also did considerable damage to the two-party system here.

The Republican Party was exposed as a house divided against itself, the contributor base of upstate moderates who backed Castle estranged from the voter base of downstate conservatives aligned with O'Donnell.

It is no way to win statewide elections.

Not to mention the Republicans already were down to two of the nine statewide officeholders and the minority in the General Assembly, while the gap in voter registration surged to roughly 110,000 more Democrats than Republicans.

The single, most evident constancy in state politics since the 1970s is that people who are elected to high office are moderate pragmatists, fiscally conservative and socially temperate. It is not the voters who have changed, but the nature of the parties.

Once upon a time, the bulk of the voters could be characterized as Castle moderates. Now? Call them Markell moderates.

Perhaps the most enduring fallout of the Senate primary is it upended some bedrock assumptions about the state's political culture. They are so fundamental that Joe Pika, a political science professor at the University of Delaware, calls them the "laws" of Delaware politics.

Inside these borders, it was supposed to be different.

Delawareans were not supposed to be swayed by out-of-state influences, but Castle and the Republican regulars were overrun by voters stoked by a frenzy of outside commentary and conservative forces like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and the tea partiers.

Delawareans were supposed to insist on retail politics, getting to know the candidates one-on-one, but O'Donnell was essentially the creation of a movement.

"I never thought this could happen in Delaware," said Jim Soles, a political science professor emeritus from the University of Delaware.

A state taboo against low blows and smear campaigns also went by the wayside.

"I'm disappointed in the lack of civility. We are allowing our political process to be demonized. The worst is the thinking, if you're in office, we've got to get you out. There are honorable Democrats and Republicans serving in office," said John Daniello, the Democratic state chair.

What could be left? Maybe the "law" that voters do not appreciate politicians who make a spectacle of their state, and right now O'Donnell is the punch line for a lot of jokes about masturbation.

There could be a reckoning. Delaware has been very demanding in its choice of senators. John Williams, the Republican who was called the "Conscience of the Senate." Bill Roth, the Republican famed for the Roth IRA and the Roth-Kemp tax cut. Caleb Boggs and Tom Carper, one a Republican and the other a Democratic governor when they were elected.

All right, there was that kid 29-year-old, a Democrat in his first term as a New Castle County councilman who also got elected. What ever happened to him, anyway?