The FBI is investigating whether Christine O’Donnell misused campaign funds during her Senate run. While we wait to find out whether she’s guilty on that count, we already know that she is guilty in another way: for destroying and cannibalizing the Republican Party in Delaware. Despite the media’s continuing fascination with O’Donnell (to the point where even Chris Coons is still asked about her) less attention has been paid to O’Donnell’s negative effect on the down-ticket races in Delaware, or to the fact that the damage she did will last for several election cycles. There has also been no attempt to hold accountable the conservative media figures who endorsed O’Donnell.
O’Donnell had a consistently negative effect on the close down-ticket races in Delaware. Republican Party officials in the state who spoke to FrumForum on and off the record expressed great frustration with the damage she caused. O’Donnell did this in several different ways. She cost the GOP several candidates in the Delaware State House, giving the Democrats a super-majority. She hurt the campaign for the Republican nominee for State Treasurer. She boosted a Democratic party which has been growing stronger in the state, and solidified in the minds of many voters the view that the Republican party was an atavistic and unserious party, which the mainstream had rejected. In a year when Republicans had a wave to take advantage of and the opportunity to grow across the entire country, O’Donnell failed her party and brought it down.
The election results show several close Delaware State House races where Democrats won by incredibly small margins. Not only were the percentages that separated these races very small, they were also small in absolute terms. The closeness of these races speaks to the success of the Democrats’ get out the vote efforts, which were driven largely by motivating voters against O’Donnell.
There were seven State House races where the Democrat won by less than than 1,000 votes. In three of those races, the Republican candidate had been recruited to take on a Democratic incumbent. The power of incumbency is hard to defeat in any election cycle, and a wave election is a rare chance to counter it. Yet in the races for the 6th, 9th, 10th, 14th, 18th, 32nd, and 41st districts, the GOP candidate lost. The vote margins were very small: 407, 282, 734, 879, 438, 296, and 939 votes respectively. (The race for the 7th was also close, decided by 1,364 votes.)
Many of the candidates who were recruited to run in this cycle did so with the expectation that Mike Castle would be on the top of the ticket. Not only did the Republicans have a weak candidate on the top of the ticket, Democrats (and independents) were given more motivation to vote against O’Donnell and the entire GOP ticket. Neither Chris Coons nor any of the other Democrats on the ticket were considered exceptionally inspiring among the Democrats. One Republican told FrumForum: “There really was no motivation for Democrats to vote in this election until the O’Donnell thing happened.”
In a year when Republicans made gains in state legislatures across the country, the Republican caucus in Delaware’s State House got smaller, going from 17 Republicans to 15. This has given the Democrats a super-majority in the State House. They can now write revenue related bills without the Republicans if they choose.
In addition to the lost opportunities in the House races, Republicans in Delaware also expressed frustration with the results in the State Treasurer race. The Republicans had nominated State Senator Colin Bonini and he lost to Democrat Chip Flowers Jr. 51% to 49%. Everyone that FrumForum spoke to described Bonini as a candidate who was significantly more conservative than Mike Castle, a candidate who would have likely appealed to Tea Party voters. By losing his State Treasurer election, the Democrats not only won another close race, they also gained an important long-term advantage for candidate cultivation.
Many of Delaware’s highest ranking politicians have previously held the State Treasurer position. Some notable previous holders of that spot include current Democratic Senator Tom Carper and current Democratic Governor Jack Markell. With Delaware’s Senate and House seats both going into the Democratic column, being able to get a Republican into the State Treasurer position was critical for cultivating a conservative candidate who could be competitive in future election cycles.
As a candidate, Bonini clearly had appeal beyond just the conservative base. Bonini and every other Republican running in statewide races managed to get more votes than Christine O’Donnell. This was not enough to overcome the Democrats get out the vote effort though which was sustained by opposition to O’Donnell and led many to vote for Chris Coons and other Democratic candidates on down-ticket races.
In addition to the lost opportunities in 2010, O’Donnell’s run caused damage that will last beyond the midterms. The Republican brand within Delaware has gone from just being unpopular to being toxic. Republicans who spoke to FrumForum described the Republican party meetings that are attended mainly by senior citizens, as well as Tea Partiers who view college degree holders with disdain. In this environment, professionals and businessmen in Delaware are finding the Democrats to be the more appealing option. One person bluntly stated that the Democrats figured out how to win in Delaware simply by nominating candidates “who are not crazy left-wingers.”
The Republicans who spoke to FrumForum noted that this election allowed Democrats to build on their efforts to attract independents and even Republicans to support Democratic candidates. The 2008 Democratic primary for governor was very close. In that race, voting in the primary (and registering as a Democrat) became the real way to influence the result since it was apparent the eventual Democratic nominee would win the general election. (This is a dilemma that Republicans who live in Washington D.C. should be intimately familiar with.)
With the Delaware GOP’s voting base now down to its most radical elements, and with fewer qualified candidates being cultivated to run for higher office, it is difficult to imagine a mainstream candidate winning the GOP primary — let alone a general election — in future election cycles. The fact that Joe Biden will be on the presidential ticket in 2012 will not help.
This carries real consequences at the national level. Incumbency is always hard to overcome and Delaware’s incumbents gain an additional advantage. Since Delaware is in the Philadelphia media market, campaigns in Delaware are expensive to run and it is hard for a new candidate without financial support to challenge a candidate who has established fundraising channels. Even if a Republican is elected President in 2012, that President will face a Senate with more Democrats sitting in Delaware’s seats than there needed to be.
The irony about fundraising is that Christine O’Donnell actually managed to raise a significant amount of money out of state. However, it should be apparent now that just because a candidate has strong national appeal among extreme conservatives because of groups like the Tea Party Express, this does not mean that candidate has any appeal in the actual race they are running in.
This leaves the last question of why the conservative movement won’t hold the promoters of Christine O’Donnell accountable for what happened in the state. O’Donnell received the endorsements of Rush Limbaugh, commentators on Fox News, Sarah Palin, and Jim DeMint, without any attempt to vet her. Yet despite weakening Delaware’s GOP and handing the Democrats a Senate seat, none of these supposedly “real” conservatives are being held accountable.
In a particularly amusing episode about the irresponsibility and flippancy of these “conservatives”, Sarah Palin originally promised to campaign for O’Donnell after endorsing her but she never did. When presented with an opportunity to attend a Tea Party rally in Delaware, Palin decided to attend a Jets football game instead. DeMint also endorsed O’Donnell but did not visit the state either. It seems that the real priority was to cannibalize Mike Castle and Delaware’s GOP in the name of being “pure conservatives”.
The FBI will determine if O’Donnell was guilty of misusing campaign funds, but it is already clear and she and a large segment of the conservative media are guilty of causing significant harm and pain to the Republican party of Delaware.
Follow Noah on Twitter: @noahkgreen
EDIT: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Colin Bonini was a State Representative when he is in fact a State Senator. The piece has been corrected.