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Could Christine O'Donnell have won?



Delaware Republican Christine O'Donnell lost her bid for Senate last week. AP Photo

Over the weekend South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint suggested that marketing consultant Christine O'Donnell could have won her bid for Delaware's Senate seat had she not been so "maligned" by the national GOP.

DeMint's rhetoric is consistent with the thinking of many people aligned with the tea party movement -- that the establishment's decision to savage O'Donnell during the final weeks of her primary race against Rep. Mike Castle (R) had the effect of drastically weakening her for the general election fight against New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D).

So, is DeMint right? Do the vote numbers suggest that there could have been a path to victory for O'Donnell?

Let's unpack the data.

Coons beat O'Donnell 57 percent to 40 percent, a margin of roughly 50,000 votes.

O'Donnell actually carried two of the state's three counties -- Sussex and Kent -- and, in so doing overperformed the showing of Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) in the 2008 presidential election. (McCain won Sussex but lost Kent while taking just 37 percent statewide.)

The problem for O'Donnell -- and every other Republican running for statewide office in Delaware -- is New Castle County.

New Castle, which takes in the state's northernmost reaches and includes the population hubs of Newark and Wilmington, is a major Democratic stronghold.

Coons, who had a bit of a built-in advantage since he currently serves as, effectively, the mayor of the county, took 66 percent there compared to O'Donnell's 31 percent. Coons won the county by 66,000 votes while winning the state by 51,000 as New Castle accounted for 61 percent of all votes cast.

O'Donnell's poor showing was not inconsistent with how other statewide Republicans have performed in New Castle County in recent elections. McCain won just 29 percent in the county in 2008, losing it by more than 100,000 votes to President Obama.

And, in the 2000 Senate race -- the last truly competitive Senate race in the state -- then Sen. Bill Roth (R) took just 40 percent in New Castle while losing 55 percent to 44 percent statewide to Tom Carper (D).

Perhaps the race most instructive when trying to understand the New Castle problem for Republicans is the 2004 race between President George W. Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

Bush, like O'Donnell, carried Kent and Sussex. In fact, he overperformed her in each -- taking 56 percent in Kent and 60.5 percent in Sussex.

But, like O'Donnell, Bush was crushed in New Castle; he won just 39 percent of the vote in the county, which cast 64 percent of all statewide votes. He lost the First State 53 percent to 46 percent.

Raw numbers alone suggest that the math rarely -- if ever -- adds up for a Republican statewide win because of the Democratic dominance in New Castle. O'Donnell spent heavily on television -- somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million -- to try to break through in New Castle, which is covered by the Philadelphia media market, but failed.

The last Republican to carry Delaware at the presidential level wasGeorge H.W. Bush in 1988; Roth was the last GOPer to win a Senate race in 1994 -- a pretty good year to be a Republican almost anywhere. (In a painful fact for Republicans, Castle won 57 percent of the vote in New Castle in 2008 in his admittedly non-competitive reelection race.)

And, that's before you consider that O'Donnell was a poor ideological fit for the state -- a social conservative in a state where even most of the Republicans outside of Sussex County are socially moderate -- who ran a odd and unpredictable campaign. (Who could forget her "I am not a witch" ad?"

Combine the New Castle hurdle with the fact that O'Donnell was simply the wrong type of candidate for Republicans in a state as friendly to Democrats as Delaware and it becomes apparent that barring some sort of historical anomaly, she was not going to be elected to the Senate no matter what the establishment did or did not do for her.

By Chris Cillizza  | November 8, 2010; 11:44 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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