Requiem for Mike Castle

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 14 2010 10:10 PM

Requiem for Mike Castle

I'm from Delaware, born in 1981, and can not remember a time when Mike Castle wasn't being elected to something. In 1984, he won the first of two terms as governor. In 1992, when his term was up, he ran for our sole seat in the House of Representatives, and just to be nice Congressman Tom Carper walked away and made his own bid for governor. (He won two terms and is now our senior senator.) As a Republican, Castle won five elections while his party was losing the presidency, five elections while his party was losing the governor's mansion, and four elections -- 1996, 2000, 2002, 2006 -- while his party was losing the race for U.S. Senate.

When I was in Delaware over Labor Day weekend, Castle's incredible popularity and political resilience were put into relief. He worked crowds full of Democrats and independents who told me that they were going to vote for him, because they always voted for him. And why wouldn't they? He was the Republican voice of moderation on stem cells, on abortion, on climate change, on taxes -- on everything. Some partisan argument about how Castle would "cost Democrats the Senate" was just that -- a partisan argument, no room for that in Delaware. There are two parties here: the party that does what the banks and DuPont wants, and the party that loses. Castle was the undisputed leader of the first party.

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I see a lot of conservatives arguing tonight that Christine O'Donnell's victory shows that she can upset the establishment and win this seat. These conservatives are not from Delaware. O'Donnell won a slim majority in a race with around 58,000 Republican voters. She won Kent and Sussex counties, the conservative parts of the state. But even in scoring a massive upset, she lost New Castle County. That's where 2/3 of the state lives, and where, in the past, I saw yards with Obama/Biden and Castle signs, Kerry/Edwards and Castle signs, Gore/Lieberman and Castle signs -- you get the picture. There are tens of thousands of Delawareans who were expecting to vote for Mike Castle who are now given a choice between their workmanlike county executive, Chris Coons, and a woman who spent two weeks on the cover of the News Journal for stories about her trouble paying college fees, her lawsuit against her former employer ISI, her appearance in a MTV special about abstinence, etc, and etc, and etc. She got such rough treatment from the paper that she stopped talking to it.

When I talked to her two weeks ago, O'Donnell said if she won she'd have a talk with the Delaware GOP. "If they don't want to support me," she said, "there are conservatives around the country who we can rely on."

She might be right about the second part of that. Her victory was only possible because, for the first time, political donors and activists from outside our little state picked a target, froze it, and polarized it. But the message I am getting tonight is clear -- neither the state GOP nor the NRSC will spend any resources on O'Donnell. Mike Castle could win in Delaware, and she can't. I'd amend that slightly: No one like O'Donnell, a pure ideological candidate, has won a statewide race in Delaware in modern times. Maybe she'll be the first! But the most likely scenario is that a shocked Delaware electorate elevates Coons to the U.S. Senate while waiting to see if it can give Castle another crack at statewide office in 2012. It's what we're used to.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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