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Can Christine O'Donnell win?



Christine O'Donell's victory in Delaware's Republican Senate primary continues to set off political tremors. AP Photo by Jessica Kourkounis

Amid the flood of coverage of Delaware Republican Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell over the weekend -- She dabbled in witchcraft! She canceled her appearances on Sunday shows! -- one question was largely overlooked: Can she win?

The answer -- if past competitive Senate races in Delaware are any indication -- is probably not.

Let's take a look at the numbers.

In O'Donnell's 53 percent to 47 percent statewide primary victory over Rep. Mike Castle in last week's primary, she won two of the state's three counties. She took 65 percent in Sussex County, the state's southernmost county, and 64 percent in Kent County. Castle won New Castle County, the northernmost county in the state 58 percent to 42 percent.

Combined, Sussex and Kent comprised 49 percent of the vote while New Castle accounted for the remaining 51 percent.

The two most recent semi-competitive Senate general elections in the First State -- and there haven't been all that many -- suggest that it's next to impossible for O'Donnell to re-create that sort of vote composition this November.

In 2000 when then Gov. Tom Carper (D) beat then Sen. Bill Roth (R) 55 percent to 45 percent statewide, New Castle accounted for 65 percent of the total vote cast; Carper's 20-point margin in that county made up for the fact that he lost Kent by eight and Sussex by six to Roth.

Even in a terrific Republican year nationally -- and that could well be what we are looking at this November -- it's hard to see Kent and Sussex casting half of all the votes in a general election.

Back in 1994, Roth beat state Attorney General Charlie Oberly (D) 56 percent to 42 percent statewide. (Interesting Oberly fact: David Plouffe -- he of "Obama for America" fame -- managed that race while longtime Democratic consultant Erik Smith served as the communications director.)

In that race, 66 percent of the total vote came out of New Castle County, which Roth carried 52 percent to 46 percent. Roth also carried Kent and Sussex with 65 percent of the vote in each.

The numbers suggest that while New Castle comprises roughly half of the vote in a Republican primary, it bumps up to two-thirds of the vote in the general election -- a determinative number if O'Donnell can't make up significant ground in the county over the next 43 days.

And, there are at least three reasons to be skeptical of O'Donnell's ability to do that:

* Her opponent: Chris Coons, the Democratic Senate nominee, has been the New Castle County Executive -- roughly equivalent to the mayor of the county -- since 2004. That means that his political base (such as it is) sits right in the heart of the territory that O'Donnell will need to make inroads. It's always more difficult to re-define someone for voters than to define them in the first place; for many New Castle voters, Coons is a known commodity.

* Mike Castle: Castle pointedly refused to endorse O'Donnell following his primary defeat and it's easy to imagine supporters of the retiring Congressman -- many of whom, if the primary results are to be trusted, reside in New Castle -- voting for Coons or even staying home rather than backing the tea party favorite. Castle was/is the epitome of the country club Republicans -- fiscally conservative, socially moderate -- that populate New Castle County and without whom it is next to impossible for a GOP candidate to win statewide.

* Money: New Castle is covered entirely by the Philadelphia media market, a costly one in which to advertise. While O'Donnell's website says she has raised $1.9 million since last Tuesday and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint's political action committee is now on the air with an ad that takes a shot at Coons, it's virtually impossible to imagine the National Republican Senatorial Committee expending resources on her behalf. Given that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is now up with an ad hitting O'Donnell on questions surrounding her personal finances, it's uniquely possible that -- ultimately -- O'Donnell will find herself overmatched on the airwaves in New Castle. And, even if her recent cash explosion allows her to outspend Coons, it's not immediately clear that she has the professional-level consulting team in place to craft the sort of message that would appeal to New Castle County Republicans (and independents).

While it's easy to fixate on controversial statements that O'Donnell has made in her past, this election cycle has shown that voters are willing to overlook those sorts of things in pursuit of fresh faces looking to shake up the status quo.

O'Donnell's bigger problem in this race is basic math. To win, she needs to do one of two things: drastically improve her standing with New Castle County voters or find a way to make Kent and Sussex a much larger part of the overall statewide vote.

Neither are likely and, as a result, neither is a second O'Donnell stunner.

By Chris Cillizza  | September 20, 2010; 3:04 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: Afternoon Fix: DNC raised $10.9 million in August, and DSCC outpaced NRSC; Carter says he is a 'superior' ex-president

 
 
 
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