WASHINGTON — Tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell, a little-known underdog, Tuesday defeated veteran Delaware congressman Mike Castle for the state's Republican U.S. Senate nomination, the latest in a nationwide series of 2010 upsets by grassroots conservative candidates over establishment GOP favorites.
O'Donnell's triumph sent a strong signal that the tea party rebellion is roiling the GOP across the land and will influence the outcome of November's congressional and gubernatorial elections.
O'Donnell will face Democrat Chris Coons for the Delaware Senate seat held for 36 years by Vice President Joe Biden. Since Biden left last year, it's been filled by Ted Kaufman, his former chief of staff.
Joseph Pika, professor of political science at the University of Delaware, said O'Donnell's victory reflected "lots of anti-establishment feeling... some anti-Washington, anti-career politician rhetoric, lots of energy — the enthusiasm and excitement in this election was all on O'Donnell's side."
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The result was particularly stinging for state Republican Party leaders, who had pushed Castle as the best bet to beat the Democrat in November. With 99 percent of districts reporting, O'Donnell had 53.1 percent of the vote to Castle's 46.9 percent.
Tea party backers were watching two other races closely as returns trickled in Tuesday night. In New Hampshire, movement choice Ovide Lamontagne was leading establishment favorite Kelly Ayotte, the former state attorney general, in the race for the GOP Senate nomination.
In New York's GOP gubernatorial primary, former Rep. Rick Lazio, a strong favorite of GOP regulars, was vying with Buffalo developer Carl Paladino, a self-financed insurgent who echoed tea party calls to oust incumbents of all parties.
Analysts saw Tuesday's primaries continuing a trend that's been apparent all year.
"I'm not sure voters go through a lot of political calculation in their heads. They see someone who looks like the other guys in Washington, and they say, 'we're tired of Washington-speak,' " said Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
In New Hampshire, with only 6 percent of precincts reporting, Lamontagne had 52 percent, while Ayotte was trailing with 32 percent. Businessman Bill Binnie was a distant third.
O'Donnell's upset continued a trend that began this spring, when tea party favorites upset incumbent Republican senators Robert Bennett in Utah and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. They also defeated GOP stalwarts in Nevada, Kentucky and Colorado, and forced Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to leave the Republican Party and seek Senate election as an independent.
O'Donnell's triumph, though, is the most striking yet, because Castle, 71, has been winning statewide elections in Delaware for 30 years, while O'Donnell, 41, was making her third Senate bid in four years. The first two times she lost badly.
While Castle raised about $3.2 million and had a seasoned political staff behind him, O'Donnell had few resources, and raised only $376,000.
However, O'Donnell got help from the California-based Tea Party Express, which vowed to spend at least $250,000 on TV and radio ads for her, ads that branded Castle as a liberal and a supporter of President Obama's agenda. He voted for the Bush-sponsored bank bailout bill and the cap-and-trade climate change bill, but opposed Obama's stimulus legislation.
Last year the liberal Americans for Democratic Action rated Castle the House Republican most sympathetic to their views. He was hardly a liberal, however: The American Conservative Union said he voted its view 56 percent of the time.
The mild-mannered Castle fought back hard, unleashing a negative ad last week informing voters of O'Donnell's income tax problems and unpaid college bills. The Internal Revenue Service placed a lien against O'Donnell earlier this year for unpaid taxes.
O'Donnell countered that the agency later admitted it had erred. An IRS spokesman said he couldn't discuss individual tax matters. Newspaper reports also said that O'Donnell had contested her alma mater over payment of college expenses.
She called Castle's allegations "hysterical" as she traveled through the small state, harnessing the anger at Washington and a perception among conservatives that Castle wasn't sensitive to their concerns.
New Hampshire race
In New Hampshire, the campaign was less bitter. Lamontagne is no stranger to state politics; he upset favored U.S. Rep. Bill Zeliff 14 years ago and won the GOP gubernatorial nomination, then lost the general election.
However, Ayotte, who had the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, holds one potential advantage that Castle lacks: Independents can vote in New Hampshire's GOP primary, and were expected to do so for her in big numbers.
Still, tea party backers, with a strong push from the influential conservative Manchester Union-Leader newspaper, rallied behind Lamontagne. He's not a government official, they figure, and he has no ties to Washington.
Democratic New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch rolled to renomination for a fourth term, and he will face John Stephen, a former state health commissioner who won the GOP line on the ballot easily.
In New York, 40-year veteran Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel faced the voters for the first time since the House ethics committee accused him of 13 violations, most of them relating to his personal finances.
In all, five states chose nominees for the Senate, and six more had gubernatorial hopefuls on primary ballots. The winners had scant time to refocus their energies for midterm elections on Nov. 2.