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Upset in Del. signals a shift

Rep. Mike Castle's defeat underscores changing demographics and politics for the Republican Party.

WILMINGTON - As the GOP Senate primary returns flashed on a projection screen, conversation ceased (except for a few gasps), and supporters of U.S. Rep. Mike Castle began walking the ballroom with dazed looks, like survivors of a car accident.

Nearly everybody murmured the same thought: This kind of thing just does not happen in sane, moderate little Delaware.

Christine O'Donnell, a marketing consultant with some far-right views who has never held office, won the Senate nomination Tuesday with the backing of tea party groups and outside conservative icons Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. She shook the foundations of the Delaware establishment by defeating a nine-term congressman who had been governor and lieutenant governor.

And O'Donnell seemed to shatter the state's tradition, at least since the 1970s, of choosing pragmatic leaders - fiscally conservative, socially tolerant, no rough edges.

O'Donnell surged three weeks before the primary, when the national Tea Party Express endorsed her and spent $250,000 on advertising.

Yet demographic and political trends had been steadily eroding Castle's standing among his party's voters, opening the way for a conservative breakthrough, according to veterans of Delaware politics.

"A lot of it has to do with an internal realignment of Delaware politics," said Joseph Pika, political science professor at the University of Delaware. "The northern part has become more moderate and Democratic, while the conservative Democrats who dominated the agricultural southern counties for generations have moved into the Republican Party."

Delaware voters migrated to the Democrats in reaction to the increasing conservatism of the national GOP, he said - the same trend that has occurred in other Northeastern suburban areas, including outside Philadelphia.

As a result of Delaware's internal shifts, there was a disconnect between the passionate conservative grass roots and the remaining GOP leadership and donor base in the north.

"The Republican leadership had gotten out of touch with its most motivated voting base," Pika said. "The tea party's involvement acted on long-running trends."

Nationally, more than a half-dozen candidates with tea party backing have won Republican Senate nominations, and the movement has helped several House candidates win, along with GOP gubernatorial nominees Dan Maes in Colorado and Carl Paladino in New York.

GOP leaders are eager to harness the energy of the tea party activists, who polls suggest are a major reason Republicans have an edge in voter enthusiasm entering the last six weeks of the midterm campaign. But they know that the tea party's demands for ideological purity can drive away moderates and make it harder to win elections in states like Delaware - and ultimately to govern.

O'Donnell's victory has merely intensified the debate in Republican ranks.

GOP strategist Mark McKinnon told NPR on Friday that the upset has "thrown a grenade into our Republican politics. . . . We've discovered that the energy now is emotional and not very practical in terms of the Republican prospects for the future."

He said there had been a lot of "irrational behavior" in the uprising and not much concrete thought about solutions to the nation's problems.

"The tea party has been a huge lift to the Republican Party," Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) said Thursday. "We need to embrace it."

A national Public Policy Polling survey last week found that 41 percent of respondents who described themselves as moderate thought there was no place for them in the modern Republican Party. Only 21 percent of those moderates identified themselves as Republicans, compared with 46 percent who called themselves Democrats and 32 percent who are independents.

"It's a good thing in 2010 - Republicans are going to win just by showing up," said Tom Jensen, director of PPP, based in Raleigh, N.C. "In 2012, the Barack Obama voters may come back. . . . We'll need to be cautious about over-interpreting the results in November and pronouncing the [political] death of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party."

After all, he said, two years ago, people chattered about the certain decline of the GOP. "We're capable as a nation of swinging back and forth," Jensen said.

Indeed, the two major parties have been reshaped from time to time by grassroots supporters - Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council moved their party to the center and governed after a long period of Republican domination. In 2005, under the leadership of Democratic national chairman Howard Dean, the more liberal elements of the party held sway.

Republicans were roiled by infighting when conservative former California Gov. Ronald Reagan unsuccessfully challenged moderate President Gerald R. Ford in the 1976 primaries, but four years later the party swept to victory under Reagan. There also were tensions when Christian conservatives became a more active part of the party's coalition in the 1980s.

Villanova University political scientist Lara M. Brown said she thought the tea party movement was as much a reaction to the growth of the federal government under former President George W. Bush, a Republican, as it was a response to the bad economy and President Obama.

Bush, after all, fought two wars, expanded Medicare to include prescription drugs, and grew the size and power of the federal government to fight terrorism.

"I see the tea party group as being influential in moving the Republican Party back toward small-government conservatism," Brown said. "They're not that enamored of the Republican Party. They're loyal to their principles."

In 1980, Republicans held seven of the nine statewide elected offices in Delaware, the only exceptions being then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the state treasurer.

Today, the situation is reversed, with Castle and the state auditor, Tom Wagner, the only Republicans.

Since 2000, the percentage of Delaware voters registering as Republicans has shrunk from 35 to 29, according to the state election commissioner. Democrats picked up most of the difference, rising from 42 percent of state voters to 47 percent. Unaffiliated voters went from 23 percent to 24 percent of the total.

Most political hands in Delaware say O'Donnell is too conservative to carry the state in November, but they're not willing to bet much on it.

Although Democrat Chris Coons, the New Castle County executive, leads early polls by double digits, Democratic strategists are wary of taking O'Donnell too lightly. She has star power, and powerful megaphones in Fox News and conservative talk radio. O'Donnell also had pulled in $1.6 million in donations as of Friday, her campaign said.

"We will end up beating her, but this will be a real campaign," said a senior Democratic strategist involved in the party's efforts to hold the Senate.

On Wednesday, a little more than 12 hours after he learned that his opponent would be O'Donnell instead of a Delaware political icon, Coons was campaigning in Libby's, a diner downtown.

Henry Beckler stood up from his lunch of grits and eggs as Coons approached, and offered congratulations.

A registered Republican, Beckler voted for Castle, whom he has known for decades. He has voted for Democrats and plans to back Coons in the general election.

"He's done a lot for us," said Beckler, 79, board chairman of the World Trade Center-Delaware, which helps local companies tap foreign markets.

And O'Donnell?

"I don't know who she is or what all she did," Beckler said. "Nothing good," he added, can come from the tea party's hostility to government.