Can Tea Party Express deliver upset in Del. primary?

    An underdog candidate pulls off a stunning primary win in Alaska, thanks to the financial backing of the Tea Party Express. Can a last-minute donation in Delaware produce a similar upset?

    After helping to engineer a surprise victory in Alaska, the Tea Party Express is focusing its attention — and money — on Delaware.

    The national organization announced a $250,000 commitment for Christine O’Donnell, who is challenging Delaware Republican congressman Mike Castle in the Sept. 14 Senate primary. Castle is considered a heavy favorite.

    The Tea Party Express spent some $600,000 to back Alaska Republican Joe Miller’s shocking Senate primary defeat of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski’s family has held the seat for 30 years.

    So the question here in Delaware is — can a last-minute Tea Party Express contribution produce a similar upset?

    No, says Delaware State University political science professor Sam Hoff.

    “The Tea Party is an interesting phenomenon and movement in American politics,” he said. “They’ve obviously scored some big wins, but I don’t think there’s an analogy to Delaware.”

    Hoff says there are a couple of key differences between the two races. The first, he says, is money. The $250,000 on top of the $170,000 O’Donnell has already raised in campaign finances still doesn’t come close to Castle’s $3 million.

    But that’s not all, Hoff says.

    “Much more than that is (Castle’s) reputation as a solid Republican, albeit a moderate one, in the state.”

    Hoff believes the Tea Party money may make a difference of a few percentage points in the final vote, but not nearly enough to cause an upset.

    State Republican Chair Tom Ross agrees there is no comparison to Alaska. He says the difference in Delaware is the candidate backed by the Tea Party Express.

    “We’ve got two entirely different situations,” Ross said. “In Alaska, Joe Miller was an Ivy League graduate, a war hero, prominent in his community. Christine O’Donnell, on the other hand, is a perennial candidate with numerous issues in terms of her personal finances.”

    Neither O’Donnell nor anyone on her campaign team responded to questions for this report.

    A Tea Party Express spokesman has said the organization hopes to begin airing radio and television ads by the end of the week. He put the anticipated cost at about $250,000.

    Ross says it won’t matter.

    “You can put a lot of money into marketing a product but at the end of the day the consumers are going to look at that product and judge it on its merit and the Tea Party Express just doesn’t have a good product to sell here in Delaware.”

    Whether the money makes a difference in Delaware remains to be seen. But University of Alaska Fairbanks political science professor Jerry McBeath says Miller would not have won in Alaska without it. He says $600,000 goes a long way in Alaska, where television ads are much less expensive than in the Philadelphia market.

    But McBeath also says politics are quite a bit different in Alaska.

    “Fifty-four percent of our voters are undeclared voters and they’re more responsive to appeals, especially conservative appeals.”

    However, Hoff says the Tea Party Express donation represents a dramatic change in the national attitude toward Delaware politics.

    “The first thing I think of is the fact that outside forces are having some impact, and that’s traditionally not been the case in Delaware.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.