The Delaware Republican Party gambled big in Tuesday’s primary. To borrow a poker analogy, the DE GOP went “all in” on Mike Castle, and lost. But unlike poker, losing doesn’t end the game. The DE GOP still exists, with the same chairman and the same staff that it had before Christine O’Donnell defeated Castle to capture the party’s Senate nomination. Castle’s defeat puts the party in a terrible position (largely but not totally of its own making), and the evidence so far is that the party doesn’t see just how bad that position is. It’s continuing to sound off against O’Donnell, refusing to endorse her or even help her during the seven weeks that stand between the primary and the general election.
The timeline of Delaware’s convention and primary to some extent dictated that this would turn out bloody. At the party’s state convention in May, Castle won the Senate nomination handily with over 70% of the vote. Winning at the state convention, with the primary six four months away, usually means winning the primary. From the looks of things 1,500 miles away in Austin, the DE GOP convention looks like it’s timed to be a coronation that clears the primary field, more or less, for the party’s chosen candidate. That probably works in most years, but 2010 isn’t most years.
After defeat at the convention, O’Donnell didn’t take the vote of the party’s hardcore faithful as the last word, and resumed her campaign. It’s not too hard to see why: Delaware’s GOP convention was probably attended by a few hundred people at the most, while the state’s Republican primary voting body numbers in the tens of thousands. Many Tea Party gatherings probably outnumber the state party’s own convention. The conventioneers are the party’s delegates chosen by other party folks at the local level, but given Delaware’s tiny size and its moderate leanings, those conventioneers aren’t necessarily very conservative or very representative of this year’s angry and motivated electorate.
This year is the Tea Party year, and O’Donnell had the Tea Party in her corner. Castle was popular statewide but vulnerable on the right because of his voting record, and he wasn’t popular at all among the Tea Party activists. With six four months between the convention and the primary, it obviously wasn’t impossible for O’Donnell to turn things around in time to win where it counted with state election law, and that’s the September primary, not the May convention. The state party was left in a bind, caught between the candidate who looked the most viable and had actually won the nomination at the convention, and the upstart who for whatever reasons had obviously made enemies among the party’s establishment and was continuing her campaign against the presumed nominee. As a former state party hack, I don’t envy them a bit.
O’Donnell’s win leaves the Delaware GOP as a rump party. It has one elected official statewide now, and its Senate nominee is to a great extent an enemy. O’Donnell may be more of an enemy even than the Democratic nominee, Chris Coons, because of the party’s aggressive campaign against her. There have already been calls for the state chairman, Tom Ross, to resign over the party’s actions.
Political parties are not supposed to be inward-looking social clubs. They’re supposed to represent ideas and ideology, not personalities. That in mind, it’s clear that the DE GOP doesn’t represent what the GOP primary voters in the state want this year. Every move the party makes from here on will be taken with a great deal of skepticism among the O’Donnell voters, who are now a majority of the state’s Republican base. The lasting effects of Tuesday’s primary could devastate the party if it doesn’t take swift action. The party’s credibility has taken a major hit. Donations may keep coming in from the moderate major donors, but the party will have a serious grassroots problem on its hands. The DE GOP will be a house divided between its old guard, lately pejoratively called the “establishment,” and its primary voters.
The DE GOP needs to take visible action to restore its credibility and save the state’s Senate seat from the Democrats’ “bearded Marxist.” The fate of ObamaCare may hang in the balance. If the DE GOP leadership is not willing to do what the NRSC has done and close ranks to support O’Donnell, it really only has two other choices. One of those is to remain at war with her, knowing that the consequences are likely to be that the Democrats take that seat. The other is to take visible action to reconcile with O’Donnell and thereby have a better shot at taking the seat. The most visible action it can take is for Chairman Ross to resign and allow the party to choose a successor who is at least not overtly and personally hostile to O’Donnell. If Ross isn’t willing to live and work with the choice that the majority of Republican primary voters in his state have made, then it’s time for him to find other work.