Now that Sarah Palin has endorsed Christine O’Donnell for Senate in Delaware, the O’Donnell campaign is starting to look like a typical Tea Party success story along the lines of Rand Paul in Kentucky, Ken Buck in Colorado, Sharron Angle in Nevada or Joe Miller in Alaska. Since that’s a familiar storyline, let’s look at the other side of it: we now also have a few examples of establishment candidates beating back conservative insurgents. Could Mike Castle emulate any of them the way O’Donnell can Paul or Miller?
Confining my examples to Senate races, the Republican establishment has rallied with Mark Kirk in Illinois, Dan Coats in Indiana, Carly Fiorina in California, and John McCain in Arizona. Kelly Ayotte looks like a decent bet to win in New Hampshire too. Coats, Fiorina, McCain, and possibly Ayotte all benefited from the perception that they were at least conservative enough. Coats and Ayotte faced more than one major conservative opponent. Fiorina had a candidate to her left enter the primary and take an initial lead in the polls based on name recognition.
No Republican to the left of Castle is likely to be found, not even in Delaware. He has only one conservative primary challenger. And Castle might have trouble arguing that he is at least conservative enough. So what to do? At first, it looked like Kirk would be the closest parallel. Defeating Kirk in the primary never became a national conservative crusade; Kirk’s main primary opponent failed to attract enough support inside or outside Illinois to become a serious threat. But that ship has now sailed. Defeating Castle is a conservative cause celebre and O’Donnell’s candidacy has reached critical mass.
Castle is starting to channel McCain: attack your conservative primary opponent often (O’Donnell hasn’t exactly been a shrinking violet either). But unlike McCain, he did not do so early. It’s not clear whether he’ll be able to define her as effectively as McCain defined J.D. Hayworth. And while being aggressive is important, it can only get you so far — just ask Trey Grayson, the man who lost to Rand Paul.
Basically, Castle’s strongest argument is that he can win in November. If O’Donnell’s camp has something stronger to rebut this than a single July Rasmussen poll showing her ahead by a statistically insignificant margin, I haven’t seen it. But the trouble is, as far as I can see this argument hasn’t worked so well for establishment candidates going as far back as the NY-23 special congressional election in 2009 — and Castle shares more than a few ideological traits with Dede Scozzafava.