Four Things to Know About Delaware

Four Things to Know About Delaware

By Sean Trende - September 16, 2010

An awful lot of ink has been spilled on Christine O'Donnell's monumental upset of moderate Republican Mike Castle in the Delaware primary on Tuesday. Far too much, in fact. So let's cut to the chase. There are really only four things you need to know:

1. Yes, that is almost certainly the end of GOP prospects for this Senate seat.

If anything, the PPP (D) poll showing O'Donnell trailing New Castle County Executive Chris Coons by 16 points was only surprising because the lead was so small. After the divisive primary battle, the revelations about O'Donnell, and her lack of ideological synchronization with the state, one would expect Chris Coons to be able to climb above 50 percent in a state where 62 percent of the voters voted for President Obama in 2008.

Regardless, it is still difficult to imagine that this is Coons' high point. Some conservatives have emphasized that there were 57,000 voters in the Republican primary, far more than expected. This is true. But the 2008 Democratic primary for Governor drew 73,000 voters, and Joe Biden drew 257,539 votes in his 2008 victory over O'Donnell. Tom Carper got 170,567 in 2006. In other words, even if O'Donnell gets all of the Castle primary voters (a dubious proposition at best), she still has an awful lot of Independents to convince.

Conservatives also like to point to Joe Miller, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ken Buck, Pat Toomey, Sharron Angle, and Ron Johnson as examples of candidates who were derided by the establishment as too conservative, and whose nominations drew groans. First, let's remember that none of these candidates have won yet. Angle and Johnson are no better than 50-50 shots to win right now, and all of the rest, save Miller, are just now opening up significant advantages.

More importantly consider these numbers: 38, 41, 51, 54, 55, 55, 56. These represent, respectively, the vote shares for President Obama in each of the states in which the above candidates are running. In Delaware, he received 62 percent of the vote. And O'Donnell starts her race with much more baggage than any of these candidates, with the possible exception of Angle. In other words, O'Donnell is the weakest nominee of this group, running in the least hospitable state. It is not a powerful combination.

2. This doesn't hurt the GOP's chances of the taking the Senate all that much.

The idea that the GOP just frittered away its chance at a majority is at the very least problematic. Yes, their hill got steeper. But remember, RealClearPolitics rated this race as "Leans Republican" even when it looked like Castle would win. Castle is a Delaware institution, and he was polling below 50 percent against Coons. He wasn't likely to lose, but neither was this seat the "gimme" for Republicans that many described.

Moreover, the GOP still has enough seats to play with to win control this cycle. It will be very difficult to sweep WA, WI, NV and CA (or bring WV and/or CT into the fold), but it isn't impossible. And I'm not sure it is that much more difficult than winning three of the four. These races are not completely independent of each other - many of the same factors that make victory possible in Washington will make victory possible in Wisconsin. In other words, the odds of the GOP winning all four of those states aren't that much different than winning three of them.

3. Still, the GOP will regret not having Castle's vote someday.

But the real concern for the GOP, at least in the short run, isn't 51 seats. In the Senate, unlike the House, the difference between 50 and 51 seats isn't all that great. It isn't insubstantial, either (witness Harry Reid attaching the DREAM Act to a recent defense appropriations bill). But the GOP will still have more than enough opportunity to gum up the works for the Obama Administration's agenda at 50 seats.

The real goal for the GOP is the Presidency and 60 seats in 2012. And that is where this gets tricky. In 2012, there will be eight Democrats running for re-election in states that George W. Bush carried, and another four in states George W. Bush came close to carrying. The sixty seat majority is certainly do-able in 2012, but the Republicans will need every seat to make this happen. If the Republicans really want to repeal, say, the Democrats' health care bill, they will almost certainly need sixty votes to do so.

"Ah yes," you will hear, "but Castle was a RINO, and really wasn't that different from a Democrat in the seat." This is just false. Castle has his departures from GOP orthodoxy - or else he wouldn't have been elected twelve times in Delaware. But the American Conservative Union has given Castle a 52% lifetime rating. Over the past few decades he voted for most of the Contract with America, "no" on requiring background checks on gun owners, yes to end the estate tax, yes on the Bush tax cuts, no on the stimulus, no on the health care plan, no on a timeline for troop withdrawals from Iraq, and yes to impeaching President Clinton.

The fact of the matter is that Ben Nelson drives Democrats crazy, but when the chips were down, they were able to squeeze him into voting for health care reform. They would not have had that leverage if they had primaried him in 2000 or 2006 and a Republican had won the seat, and the bill might have been stopped. Similarly, there will come a time in the next ten years where Republicans will greatly regret not having Castle's vote -- either the Democrats will pass something the Republicans hate by a vote, or Republicans will want to pass something and be one vote short. And the conservatives who are supporting O'Donnell will probably blame the establishment.

4. No, this doesn't mark the end of the GOP.

Some pundits seem to have been transported back to November 2008, when it was all the rage to opine about how the GOP was a shrinking cesspool of conservative anger, capable of winning only in a few states in the South. See Tunku Varadarajan here. Or Jon Chait here. Or John Tabin here.

There are two problems here. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that the Republicans are currently positioned to win the most House seats that they've won in an election since 1946. Republican candidates for the House are running away with races in evenly-matched swing districts. They are competitive in House districts in Maine that are typically 3-8 points more Democratic than the country, and in a Central Valley district that is five points more Democratic than the country. And if Republicans are competitive in CA-20, what does the polling look like in the 116 districts Democrats occupy that are as or more conservative than that district? There is also a chance for the GOP to win the most Governorships in 130 years - numbers that don't support the view of a party in decline.

Second, there’s a lack of historical perspective.  The GOP base has been at war with its establishment since (at least) the 1960s.  We saw this fissure in the epic primary battles between Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Ronald Reagan versus George H.W. Bush in 1980.  At the Congressional level  Charles Sandman’s primary of New Jersey Governor William Cahill in 1973, Jeffrey Bell’s primary of New Jersey Senator Clifford Case in 1978, Kenneth McMillan’s primary of Thomas Railsback in 1982, Oliver North’s primary of Jim Miller in 1994, the trifecta of Allard, Brownback, and Salvi in 1996.

What’s different this year is the depth and intensity of the anti-establishment anger.  The same forces that ended Mike Castle’s career are the same forces that are propelling the GOP toward historic midterm election gains. In other words, some pundits aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. When historians look back on the 2010 elections, O’Donnell’s win over Castle is likely to be nothing more than a footnote in a broader story of what will likely be a very good GOP year.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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