O’Donnell Wins, GOP Loses, But Where Are The Voters?

A post-primary day wrap-up

It’s the morning after the last major round of primaries and a new political star is born in “dissident,” “little-known underdog,” and “Sarah Palin doppelganger” Christine O’Donnell. Seven states and D.C. all held primaries yesterday, but O’Donnell’s Joe Miller-like pummeling of nine-term Rep. Michael Castle in Delaware’s Republican senate primary is the result that’s got the pundits talking, the GOP squabbling, and Democrats grinning.

Today’s papers and websites are busy picking over the soggy tea leaves left from last night’s count—there goes the Republicans’ chance of taking the Senate, say most—and unnamed Republican aides are out in force pooh-poohing the Delaware Republicans who’ve so imperiled the party with their vote. But few have bothered asking those voters why they chose O’Donnell over Castle. Nary a “John Smith at polling station X says he’s voting for O’Donnell because” in sight. And if we’re going to predict and prognosticate, that’s probably as good a place to start as any of the chair-fillers on Morning Joe.

The Times’s report, which played front-page second-fiddle to a story about a more local upset—Carl Paladino’s win over Rick Lazio in the New York Republican gubernatorial primary—was an effective rundown of Tuesday night’s results. It backgrounds the Palin and DeMint endorsements, excerpts from O’Donnell’s victory speech, then draws from other results to offer the conventional wisdom:

The results on the last big night of primaries highlighted the extent to which the Tea Party movement has upended the Republican Party and underscored the volatility of the electorate seven weeks from Election Day.

In New Hampshire, another candidate with strong backing from grass-roots conservatives, Ovide Lamontagne, was locked in a tight battle with his main opponent, Kelly Ayotte, in the Republican primary for Senate.

We hear from just one voter, found not at a polling booth but a victory rally:

“I think she’s going to make it,” said Marie Bush, a supporter of Ms. O’Donnell who went to her victory rally to cheer her on. “Too many people have been slinging mud at her, and she’s a survivor.”

Asked what the candidate might do to attract independents or even Democrats, Ms. Bush said, “I think people are smart enough now to know the world we are living in is going wrong and we need people like her to make it right.”

Oddly enough, that question seems like something you should ask a pundit, and the question for the voter—why did you decide to vote for O’Donnell—remains unasked and unanswered.

Dan Balz doesn’t talk to any voters in an otherwise clear-headed and mostly effective analysis of Tuesday’s results for The Washington Post. The lede is a little jazzy-Politico for my tastes, though:

Christine O’Donnell, a “tea party”-backed long-shot candidate, stunned the Republican establishment Tuesday night by defeating nine-term Rep. Michael N. Castle in Delaware’s GOP Senate primary, one of the most shocking upsets in an already tumultuous primary season.

New midterm rule, please: refrain from using both “shocking” and “stunned,” or derivations of the two, in the one sentence, no matter how tumultuous the result.

Balz puts the O’Donnell win in the anti-Republican-establishment context:

The outcome was the latest in a string of embarrassments for the Republican establishment this year, underscoring the civil war that continues to rage in the party. Last month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska lost her primary to political newcomer Joe Miller, who like O’Donnell had the support of Palin and tea party activists. Last spring, tea party forces defeated Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah at the Republican state convention.

With no voter voices, we’re instead treated to more inside-baseball stuff, with an anonymous senior Republican telling Balz “the national senatorial committee would ‘walk’ out of the Delaware race.”

Peter Wallsten and Neil King Jr. at The Wall Street Journal give a solid rundown of past Tea Party victories in Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Nevada, and offer insight into just how energized the Republican Party is this season.

Of the 30 million ballots cast in 2010 for statewide offices before Sept. 1, more than 17 million were in Republican races, while fewer than 13 million were for Democrats—the first time since 1930 that GOP voters outnumbered Democrats in midterm, statewide primaries, according to an analysis from American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

And yet, again, the reporters flock to the experts and politicians themselves, rather than the voters, for their insights into why people are voting the way they are. Referencng the New Hampshire race, Wallsten and King Jr. report:

Mr. Lamontagne is trying to highlight his outsider status. “My point is simply this: Do you want to vote for the establishment candidate, who is brought to you by the establishment?” Mr. Lamontagne said in an interview. “Or someone who can only be beholden to you, because that’s where the support has come from?”

The voters, he said, “know I haven’t been handpicked.”

They probably could have told us that themselves if the reporter had asked.

David Lightman at McClatchy matches the others for fiery language—“the tea party rebellion is roiling the GOP across the land” is almost biblical—but does better than most by actually speaking to those doing the roiling. After a solid recap of the dynamics of the Delaware race, in which he does more than skim over O’Donnell’s troubles with the IRS, Lightman writes of O’Donnell’s supporters:

They were motivated largely by anger at Washington.

“What set me off was the stimulus bill,” said Chris Shirey, a Laurel, Del., respiratory therapist who’s the state’s tea party coordinator. “I’d be for it if was much smaller,” she said.

She found like-minded people with other complaints. They were angry at Castle’s support of the 2008 bank bailout and of the Democrats’ cap-and-trade legislation last year.

“Look at cap and trade, why do we need it? And we’re spending all this money, for what?” asked William Van Ness, a Magnolia, Del., engineer.

Kudos also go out to Time’s Alex Altman at the Swampland blog for pointing out the oft-overlooked narrative-rerouting fact that overall and despite the hype, the cycle still remains very “pro-incumbency.” Altman then offers an interesting insight into why Tea Party-backed candidates have proved successful where they have.

…the story of the night is O’Donnell’s victory, which is sure to touch off a fresh flood of stories about the dangers of incumbency amid a jobless recovery and rampant distrust of politicians in both parties. With a few notable exceptions, incumbents have been wildly successful this year, as they are in every cycle. A more nuanced assessment of the Tea Party clout…is that they’ve been able to spring upset in states where they need only to motivate a small cadre of conservatives. Those include Delaware, where O’Donnell was declared the victor with just 30,000 votes; the Republican stronghold of Alaska, where Joe Miller bounced Sen. Lisa Murkowski; and deep-red Utah, where Sen. Bob Bennett’s loss to Mike Lee can be chalked up in large part to the parameters of the state’s nominating convention.

Ginger Gibson at Delaware’s own News Journal does a nice job too, tying O’Donnell’s win to Republican U.S. House candidate Glen Urquhart’s—who also beat out a party-endorsed rival—to suggest a wider anti-establishment sentiment in the state. And the paper’s on-the-ground chats with voters provided some anecdotal meat to polls and pundits suggesting voters are frustrated with the status quo.

“I think it’s time to get rid of the old,” Brandywine Hundred voter Leandro Conti Sr. said of Castle. “I just think it’s time for him to go away.”

…Joe Gasz, 43, of Brandywine Hundred, said choosing between Castle and O’Donnell “was tough,” but in the end he went with O’Donnell “because the career politicians aren’t getting it done.”

Most interesting, perhaps, is that the chats with voters reveal that strategy was on the mind of some, despite (unchallenged) claims by Republican officials and other talking head in mainstream reports today.

Jeremy Watkins, 30, of Newark, who voted for O’Donnell and Urquhart, said he didn’t care that they might lose in November.

“I’d rather lose with a good conservative candidate,” he said, “than win with someone who doesn’t stand for the things that are important to me.”

Jeremy Watkins tells me much more about the mood of Delaware Republicans than any strategist, journalist, or disgruntled politician has.

Still, despite its own lack of voter-engagement, my favorite report on Tuesday comes from the excellent local Delaware reporter Celia Cohen at the Delaware Grapevine. It gets my vote for sheer color and grumpiness. Just last week Cohen had equated O’Donnell’s candidacy with Y2K, an explosion that just would not happen, and said that Castle was facing “nothing but a noise machine.” Needless to say, she was taken by surprise as she wrote on the results yesterday.

Noting that the “disquiet in the land” had felled many establishment candidates and incumbents in Delaware on Tuesday, Cohen then zeroed in for some pointed commentary on the Castle-O’Donnell race, and the role the national media played in it.

The Castle-O’Donnell primary was Delaware’s first experience with an Internet frenzy, gobs and gobs of cascading commentary and video gushing everywhere.

It was as silly as O’Donnell’s endorsement from Sarah Palin arriving by Tweet and as sick as a death threat e-mailed from out of state to Tom Ross, the Republican state chair, but it was powerful.

…Ultimately all the confusion and all the bedlam shook the state’s trademark equilibrium. The Republicans upended the candidate who had been entrusted with statewide office for 30 years and anointed the one who styled herself a Sarah Palin doppelganger.

NOTE: This post was updated to reflect the fact that News Journal reporter Ginger Gibson’s story had additional reporting from other workers at the paper.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.