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Mike Castle's aides, friends express shock over his primary defeat

Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) with his wife, Jane, after his primary defeat Tuesday night. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

By Felicia Sonmez
Forty-four years ago, Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) made his first foray into politics.

On Tuesday, after a career that spanned two years in the Delaware state House, eight in the state Senate, four as lieutenant governor, eight as governor, and 18 as the state's lone congressman, Castle saw that tenure of service come to an abrupt end at the hand of a rival who hadn't yet been born when Castle won his first election.

"I don't have any illusions that this will be easy street," Castle, 71, had told supporters at a Wilmington press conference last October when he announced his bid for the Senate seat that Vice President Biden (D) had held for 36 years.

But Castle wasn't alluding to a tough primary against marketing consultant Christine O'Donnell (R), 41, who came seemingly out of nowhere to defeat him Tuesday night. Rather, he was talking about the challenge of potentially facing Biden's son, state Attorney General Beau Biden (D), in the general election. (The younger Biden later announced that he would not seek the seat.)

It's a sign of just how stunning O'Donnell's win was -- an upset that Castle's team said it saw coming but only in the final weeks of the campaign.

The day after O'Donnell's win, feelings among Team Castle were still raw toward O'Donnell, some of whose supporters, Castle aides said, had "been calling our offices and saying disgusting things all day."

"It's certainly sad to think that someone with her level of character and integrity, compared to Mike Castle's level of character and integrity, could be seen as a respectable candidate by so many people," said Kate Dickens, Castle's communications director. "It's absolutely confusing, for sure."

Dickens said that Castle's team already had a plan in place to turn out as many Republican voters as possible in the primary in order to build a base of support for the general election against New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, who was running unopposed in the Democratic primary.

But it was only after Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) lost her primary to little-known attorney Joe Miller (R) in late August that the Castle camp began to realize the full threat that O'Donnell posed.

"Our finger was on the trigger, but we hadn't pulled it yet," Dickens said. "After that, we realized it was a must."

Murkowski called Castle about a week after she lost her primary and warned the nine-term congressman about the danger brewing.

Her message for Castle, according to Dickens: "It's an outside influence that's coming toward you. Take it seriously."

Steve Wackowski, a spokesman for Murkowski, confirmed that the senator called Castle to discuss the dynamic of the race. Wackowski lamented the role that national "tea party" groups have played, especially the Tea Party Express, which was active in both races. (Murkowski denounced the group in a statement Tuesday night, calling it an "outside extremist group.")

"In particular with our race, they just disregarded facts. They lied about my boss's voting record," Wackowski said, adding that the most "disheartening" thing about the Tea Party Express was that they "introduced this divisive, almost corrosive and venomous message into the political dialogue."

"I don't think Republicans in general are opposed to the tea party message," Wackowski added. "We're all about less taxes and we don't like government intervention in our lives. That's what most Republicans stand for."

Interviews with rank-and-file Delaware Republicans indicated that, while conservative activists were irked by several aspects of the moderate Castle's record, including his support of cap-and-trade legislation and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, his political longevity was just as an important factor to many who voted in the primary.

"If there had to be one single reason, I would say that his vote for cap-and-trade, but I think he got swept up in a growing frustration with unresponsive government," said Fred Cullis, 55, a Republican who is making his first-ever bid for office in an attempt to knock off state Senate Majority Leader Patricia Blevins (D), who has served for 20 years.

Castle's popularity across party lines arguably would have been one of his greatest assets in the general election. (Castle has long won reelection by significant margins, and according to one former Delaware Democratic operative, some registered Democrats had been hosting fundraisers and requesting donations on Castle's behalf during his Senate bid.)

But that crossover appeal proved of little help in a closed primary against a conservative challenger.

"People feel badly about the way he's ended his career," Delaware Democratic Party spokeswoman Katie Ellis said. "He has served Delaware, and many of those years have been good years."

Ellis added that Democrats are optimistic about the general-election prospects for Coons, whom she described as an outsider with a "fresh perspective" and a "positive, issues-driven campaign."

"I think that one of the big things that we saw is that people are upset with the way that Washington has been run," Ellis said. "They see Mike Castle as someone who's been there for 18 years, and whereas he has provided service to the state of Delaware, at this point, voters don't trust him to be the one to fix what's broken in Washington, so they are looking to outsiders."

S.B. Woo, the former Democratic lieutenant governor who served under Castle and later lost to him in a 1992 House election, said that when he last saw Castle two months ago, the two chatted about the election, but that neither man imagined Castle having any trouble in the primary.

"It was a big surprise," Woo said. "Although I've run against Mike Castle before, I feel very sad for him. He's a decent person. I like to believe, although I don't agree with him all the time, he's a good public servant doing the best he can trying to make a difference."

Woo, who at 73 is two years older than Castle, said that he's "delighted" that Coons is the Democratic nominee and noted that the Democrat cut his teeth on his 1988 Senate bid.

"I think he's pragmatic, but the flame of idealism still burns brightly and deeply in his heart," Woo said of Coons.

A lingering question for Castle's staffers is whether his loss could have been avoided.

"Should we have fought back and made this a ten-month long battle?" asked one Castle aide, who spoke under condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly about the campaign. "I don't think he would have ever wanted us to engage unless we felt it was really necessary."

Added the aide: "That's why we took action when we did."

By Felicia Sonmez  | September 15, 2010; 9:21 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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