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"Oh, Boy": How 500 Delaware Voters Are Splitting America's Conservatives

EA's US Politics correspondent Lee Haddigan writes:

On 2 September, Rasmussen Reports surveyed 500 likely voters in Delaware on the state's race for the US Senate. While establishment Republican favourite Mike Castle led the Democratic candidate, Chris Coons, by 48%-37%, the Tea Party-backed Republican Christine O’Donnell trailed Coons by 47%-36%.

US Politics: When Delaware Matters --- And How to Survive It

The poll has splintered conservatives over the last week. Despite the latest surveys, which show O’Donnell beating Castle 47%-44% in the Republican primary, some media and political figures have come out with statements that Castle would be a better Republican candidate than O’Donnell. Their argument is that, while they personally dislike Castle’s relatively liberal voting record in the US House of Representatives, he is the only Republican who can defeat Coons in the general election in November.

Nearly all these lukewarm endorsements for Castle justify their opposition to O’Donnell with the supposed dictum of William F. Buckley, the iconic US political thinker, that Republicans should always vote for the most conservative (or least liberal) candidate with a chance of winning. Paul Mirengoff of Powerline wrote that while “Castle is what I call a RIHHVO -- Republican in half his votes only", whose “votes will upset me about half of the time", he still favored him as half of a loaf was better than none.

(An aside on the Buckley position: the intellectual developed this pragmatic approach to electoral politics through the 1960s. Thus, he refused to endorse the ‘liberal’ Richard Nixon in 1960 against John Kennedy --- as a result of which, Nixon believed, he narrowly lost the election --- but he swallowed his personal dislike for Nixon and supported his successful campaign in 1968.)

That opinion provoked Mark Levin, a nationally-syndicated conservative radio talk host, to post a Facebook reply the following day. Taking particular umbrage with Mirengoff’s use of Buckley’s warning, Levin responded, “Must be nice to sit on your ass in some law office in Washington lecturing tea party activists and others with such dripping arrogance and ignorance.” Levin continued that while the tea party is “confronting the most radical administration certainly in my lifetime", Mirengoff “blows off the grassroots movement” that is fighting so hard to defeat it. Mirengoff replied to Levin in a post on Sunday, to which Levin responded; and the bickering between the two has continued to escalate during the week.

Far more important than the personal animosity, the two men are exhibiting the same divisive attitude to "Realism" over "Idealism" that have destroyed conservative movements of the past. Many Republicans deserted Robert Taft in 1952 in favor of Dwight Eisenhower in the presidential primary because they were swayed by the argument "I like Taft, but he can’t win". Buckley began the National Review in 1955, largely to rebuild the conservative movement that he believed had been destroyed by the victory of the "liberal"’ Eisenhower in the Republican presidential primary of 1952. More than 50 years later, the debate resurges: conservatives are like the elephant symbol of the Republican Party: they don’t forget.

As darkly entertaining as the Levin and Mirengoff debate is, it is now overshadowed by the neoconservative Weekly Standard coming out strongly in opposition to O’Donnell on Sunday. In an extraordinary move, John McCormack wrote an article, "Citing 'Mental Anguish', Christine O’Donnell Sought $6.9 million in Gender Discrimination against Conservative Group". The piece reveals new and damaging charges against O’Donnell’s personal credibility dating back to a lawsuit of 2005. Taken alone, the article can be read as a piece of fair and objective investigative journalism, but it becomes a hatchet job when you see that the Weekly Standard published two other articles almost simultaneously online, both of indirectly supportied Castle. One, again by McCormack, took pains to stress that in a phone call with the author, Castle “pointed out that there are important areas where he agrees with conservatives, such as repealing Obamacare and making the Bush tax cuts permanent”.

One other exchange is notable. Last Friday, Jeffrey Lord wrote an article for the conservative American Spectator responding to negative attacks on O’Donnell by the Wall Street Journal and National Review Online. The gist of Lord’s article is that these conservative publications have been co-opted into the "Ruling Class" and will defend Castle, one of their own, against any external threat from the "Outs" like O’Donnell.(As one conservative blogger put it, “Mike Castle’s Beltway cocktail buddies at The Weekly Standard” have leapt to the defense of the establishment trough from which they feed.) Jim Geraghty of National Review Online replied that Lord’s article was the “stupidest” ever published in the American Spectator, to which Lord responded, etc., etc. In a further twist, on Sunday the American Spectator published a very different piece from John Tabin comparing the O’Donnell campaign to the Judean People’s Front Crack Suicide Squad in Monty Python's Life of Brian.

It was inevitable that at some time the differing views in conservative circles on electoral success over principles would be aired. However, the catalyst of a poll of 500 likely voters in Delaware is somewhat strange. Quite why The Weekly Standard has handed the Democrats a club with which to beat O’Donnell, if she wins the Republican primary is beyond comprehension.

Beyond comprehension because O’Donnell, barring any further devastating revelations, could beat Coons and win the vacant Senate seat for the Republicans. Here’s why:

In Delaware voters are required to register 20 days before an election. In this case, that was 21 August, well before the Tea Party or the national media turned their attention to the state. So O’Donnell is beating Castle in the latest Republican poll without the majority of independents which would undoubtedly flock to her campaign if they were allowed to vote in this primary. In this closed electoral system, O’Donnell’s campaign has not been able to capitalise on the widespread disgust with establishment politicians that Tea Party enthusiasm has helped generate. O’Donnell is even claiming she is being backed by Democrats who supported Hilary Clinton in her campaign to be president. O’Donnell’s reliability aside, these voters can only help her in a general election.

If O’Donnell wins on Tuesday with this restricted base of support, then it is entirely possible she could beat Coons in November.Registration for the general election is still open, and it is not inconceivable that she can parlay victory over Castle into a statewide recruitment drive. Conservatives who are dividing the movement should have heeded the lessons of Rand Paul and Sharron Angle, Tea Party candidates who surged to win Republican primaries earlier this year. Despite low initial polling figures over their chances in the November election, and all the personal invective that has been thrown their way, both campaigns are now looking competitive come November.

Whatever the deficiencies of the Tea Party, they can point to a record of turning near-impossible campaigns into possible winners, and with O’Donnell as a candidate, where do you think a lot of their money will go in this autumn's campaign? A Senate seat from Delaware is the same as a Senate seat from New York or Califorania, and it is an awful lot cheaper to influence the elections in America’s second-smallest state.

Delaware has been thrust reluctantly, after the initial thrill, onto the front page of political news. But when the state returns to obscurity after the primary, at least until next month, there will be injuries from this surprisingly nasty struggle that will not be forgiven or forgotten, inside and outside the state. As O’Donnell exclaimed to a reporter on Sunday night, after being informed of the Weekly Standard article attacking her: "Oh, boy."

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