LAS VEGAS — During this weekend’s Right Online conference at the Venetian Resort Hotel, a member of Christine O’Donnell’s campaign team said, “We’re putting the band together.”
Exactly who quoted that line from The Blues Brothers, I’m not at liberty to divulge. Our meeting in the lobby bar was strictly off-the-record and I didn’t take notes. For all I know, I might get in trouble just for quoting it, but I’ll take that gamble, because it perfectly captures the extent to which O’Donnell’s Senate campaign in Delaware is a class reunion of sorts for the aggressive team that helped turn Doug Hoffman’s upstate New York congressional race into a national crusade for conservatives. (See “Battle Cry in the North Country” from the December/January issue of The American Spectator.)
Hoffman’s campaign manager, Matt Moran, is in charge of O’Donnell’s Republican bid for Vice President Joe Biden’s former Senate seat. Last month, Nevada-based New Media activists Eric Odom and Steven Foley, who heavily promoted Hoffman’s campaign on their 73Wire.com Tea Party site, joined Team O’Donnell to organize the candidate’s online support. And just last week, O’Donnell added another Hoffman alumnus in Yates Walker, a young former 82nd Airborne paratrooper who ran the Plattsburgh regional office in New York’s sprawling 23rd District last fall.
All of which is to say that O’Donnell’s Sept. 14 Senate primary against Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware is shaping up to be the latest battle in the Republican Party’s ongoing struggle between Tea Party-backed insurgents and a GOP establishment that seems to fear its own conservative base.
As with the primary fight for the South Carolina GOP gubernatorial nomination that turned Nikki Haley into an overnight political superstar, conservatives in Delaware have the benefit of backing an indisputably telegenic candidate. O’Donnell, a 40-year-old communications consultant who worked for the Republican National Committee during the glory days of Haley Barbour’s chairmanship in the mid-1990s, has the kind of 100-watt smile that lights up a room. But she’s not just a pretty face, either, having demonstrated her gritty determination two years ago when she sold her house and invested her life’s savings in an against-all-odds challenge to Biden, who ran simultaneously for re-election to the Senate while campaigning as Barack Obama’s running mate.
Biden’s two-campaign 2008 strategy was perfectly legal under Delaware law, but it has set up a unique scenario for the 2010 cycle. The Democratic governor appointed a seat-warmer to replace Biden temporarily, and rumors were that Biden’s son, state attorney general Beau Biden, would seek to fill his father’s shoes in this year’s special election. Instead, Biden backed out and the Democrats lined up behind a relative unknown New Castle County official. Thus, whoever wins the GOP nomination has a far more promising prospect in November. Ed Morrissey of the popular Hot Air blog summarized the national importance of the Delaware race: “The winner of the general election will not take office in 2011, but immediately after Election Day. That means if a Republican can beat Democratic nominee Chris Coons, they have the ability to block any lame-duck session shenanigans by Harry Reid.”
That raises the stakes in O’Donnell’s challenge to Castle, who has already voted for the Democrats’ energy tax bill — one of the notorious “Waxman-Markey 8” House Republicans to cross the aisle last June — and could be expected to do so again in the lame-duck session. O’Donnell is hammering hard on that issue, warning that Castle’s second vote for the cap-and-trade measure “would kill jobs and drive up prices on everything from peanuts to gasoline.”
O’Donnell is also pushing back against the GOP establishment’s message that only Castle can defeat Coons in November and that therefore conservatives should hold their noses and support a liberal RINO (Republican In Name Only). The establishment’s argument, however, started taking on water two weeks ago when a poll by Rasmussen Reports showed O’Donnell also narrowly edging Coons in a general election matchup. The same poll also indicated that Castle’s previously commanding lead over Coons has begun slipping, and that Castle’s total support had fallen below 50 percent for the first time.
While Castle seems to be fading, O’Donnell has gained new momentum in recent weeks. Although she can’t hope to match Castle’s $3 million campaign war chest, her online donations surged in the final days of June after she was interviewed on Mark Levin’s nationally syndicated talk-radio program. Her weekend trip to Vegas also boosted her online presence, as she met with scores of conservative bloggers and activists at the Right Online conference, including First Things “Gateway Pundit” blogger Jim Hoft, who asked, “Is Conservative Christine O’Donnell of Delaware the Next Nikki Haley?“
The person who may hold the key to answering that question wasn’t in Vegas this weekend, but is now definitely in the minds of O’Donnell’s supporters and enemies alike. It was an endorsement from Sarah Palin that rocketed Haley into the national spotlight and, as one commenter observed Monday on the Delaware Liberal blog, if O’Donnell and her team can secure Palin’s blessing, “all bets are off.”
Oddsmakers at the famous casinos on Las Vegas Boulevard might disagree. With seven weeks left to go in the GOP primary campaign, the odds against an O’Donnell upset victory over Castle may be difficult to calculate, but not impossible. Nothing is truly impossible in this kind of wildly unpredictable political year.