Didn’t Republicans learn their lesson?
That’s what failed Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell called herself back in 2010 when she became an unlikely Tea Party hero and rode the anti-establishment wave to a surprise victory in Delaware’s GOP primary.
Today, the new troublemaker for Republicans is Donald Trump – who continues to mount wins, hawk steaks and place himself within a toupee-hair’s distance of actually becoming the GOP’s Presidential nominee.
There are a lot of similarities between O’Donnell’s infamous 2010 Senate campaign and Trump’s run for the presidency.
O’Donnell was an anti-establishment candidate who ran to show that “career politicians and the establishment don’t own our country.” Thanks to the media coverage of her bizarre statements, O’Donnell’s name was much more recognizable in Delaware than her opponent. And as far as I can tell, Donald Trump isn’t a witch, either.
Unfortunately, O’Donnell’s campaign proved how dangerous the Tea Party was to the Republican party. O’Donnell faced off against Congressman Mike Castle in Delaware’s 2010 GOP Senate primary. Castle, a moderate Republican who had also been a popular governor, was such a lock to win Joe Biden’s former Senate seat that Biden’s son, Beau Biden, was reluctant to run against Castle.
Democrats ultimately nominated Chris Coons, the little-known New Castle County Executive, to be the party’s sacrificial lamb and presumably lose to Castle. Fortunately for Coons, O’Donnell’s upset win in the GOP primary snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for the GOP, costing Republicans a valuable seat and a chance to win back the Senate majority.
And it doesn’t look like Republicans have learned their lesson.
So far, there hasn’t been any polling of Delaware’s likely voters, who will vote to decide their party’s nominee on April 26. But a recent Franklin & Marshall poll in neighboring Pennsylvania shows Trump leading the pack with 22 percent of likely GOP voters.
With Republicans hoping to take the battle for the nomination all the way to the July convention in Cleveland little Delaware and its 16 delegates (second fewest in the country behind Vermont) don’t factor much into the presidential race, but this year could be different.
The Delaware GOP is actually trying to use Trump’s polarizing campaign to grow their registered voter numbers by asking Delawareans to register as Republicans so they can weigh in on the party’s nominee.
“If you want to have a chance to weigh in on your opinion pro or con on Donald Trump, you have to be a Republican,” Delaware GOP Chairman Charlie Copeland said. “We want people to register and become a Republican, and if they want to do it because they like Donald Trump, or they want to do it because they don’t like Donald Trump, we’re happy to have them.”
That’s a dangerous game Copeland is playing.
On one hand, it seems to be working by driving up the numbers. According to Copeland, there are more registered Republican voters in mostly-conservative Sussex County than registered Democrats.
On the other hand, who exactly are these Republicans registering to vote? Are they liberals hoping to push Trump to another victory? Are they Tea Party conservatives who just want to see the establishment burn? Or are they racists and bigots attracted to Trump’s dog-whistle rhetoric, hoping to make America white… I mean, great… again?
If Copeland were smart, he’d run away from Trump and his bigotry, using whatever credibility remains within the Delaware GOP to call out Trump’s hateful rhetoric and ultimately showcase his unelectability in the fall.
Instead, Copeland has praised Trump’s “strong leadership” and his ability to tap into the fear Republican primary voters have of their own party’s electorate.
State Sen. Colin Bonini, who may or may not be running for governor, seems to be counting on Trump’s angry voters to propel him to an upset over John Carney. And former Wyoming Mayor Hans Reigle, who is running for Congress (news to me, too), is parroting Trump with his pledge to “bring manufacturing jobs back to America and strengthen security at the border.”
Blame O’Donnell and those Tea Party voters that Republicans created in the wake of President Obama’s election for the lackluster slate. Their demand for right-wing candidates in the primary leaves officials like Copeland with unelectable extremists in the fall. It’s as if they’ve learned nothing in the six years that have passed since O’Donnell proudly proclaimed, “I’m not a witch. I’m you.”
By the way, care to guess what the subtitle of O’Donnell’s 2011 memoir was?
“Let’s Do What It Takes to Make America Great Again.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobTornoe