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Mirror of Justice
Last night, tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell beat moderate Mike Castle to win Delaware GOP's nomination for the U.S. Senate. This approaches unmitigated disaster, as the party has been quick to realize, although O'Donnell's supporters seem oblivious to the reality that they just threw away a winnable Senate seat for no reason.
I have nothing against O'Donnell (who seems orthodox and pleasant—winsome, even—if a little callow), and I have no particular fondness for Mike Castle, but my political preferences would be of little relevance if I lived in Delaware, and are of none at all since I do not. What is relevant is the political reality of the state. Delaware voted 62% for Obama. It voted for Kerry, Gore, and Clinton both times. Excepting Mike Castle, the last Republican to win a statewide election there was Bill Roth—who would not pass tea party scrutiny—in 1994, and I don’t know when the last time one won a first statewide election (as opposed to reelection, with all the advantages of incumbency). The last Republican elected as governor of Delaware was Castle—in 1984. Democrats enjoy a 3:2 voter registration advantage. The idea that this a red state in waiting, ready to flip if we would just nominate a real conservative—who are we kidding?
This is not a state that we are bound to lose no matter who we nominate; if that were the case, sure, if we have nothing to lose, nominate a Goldwater, make a statement. Likewise, this is not a state where we are going to win no matter who we nominate, so we do not have the freedom of picking whichever candidate strikes us as best. The kicker is that we could have won Delaware, but threw it away for no reason: We now have a true conservative candidate with zero crossover appeal in a state where only 38% of the electorate are registered Republicans. How do you suppose this will work out for us?
O'Donnell's supporters are quick to raise Scott Brown's victory in the Massachusetts special election earlier this year, but the comparison is inapt. If we had nominated a vulnerable firebrand like O’Donnell there, we’d have lost that one, too. Instead, we nominated a very presentable moderate who fit the mood of the electorate. What’s more, Brown benefited from circumstances that won't obtain in Delaware. His opponent, was weak in every possible way, and while it wasn’t exactly a single-issue election, there was a widespread belief that the election was a referendum on stopping Obamacare, an issue on which a majority of Massachusetts voters—not just Republicans—shared Brown's opposition. By contrast, Democrats are pretty happy with the bulk of the Obama agenda, as you would expect; if Coons defends them, he may make the tea party—a subset of Republicans, who are in turn a minority subset of the electorate—madder and madder, but he’s not going to help us. These aren’t issues that will lead to aisle-crossing in the way that benefited Brown in January.
Another canard is that we have nothing to lose because Castle is a RINO, that he's not a conservative or a Republican in good standing. People who make that argument are living in another world. Their mistake is to see “bad” as an arbitrary line beyond which there are no gradations, just an undifferentiated miasma of “bad.” But that’s silly. Barney Franks, for example, is objectively worse than Mike Castle. Castle had a 52% lifetime average ACU rating, and that is dismal, but it is stellar compared to what Chris “Marxist with a beard” Coons will get. Castle may not have voted with us some of the time, but Coons will vote against us virtually all of the time.
Elections are zero-sum games: the better candidate wins, or the worse candidate wins. Period. If we want conservative principles to be a real governing force, we have to follow Buckley's counsel: pick the most conservative candidate who is also electable. It gains us nothing to throw away a real chance of victory for a purer loser, and the times are too serious, the issues too big, the stakes too high, to give in to such childish petulance. If, however, we want to sit on the sidelines throwing popcorn and yelling, nominating non-viable candidates is a great way to do it.
O'Donnell supporters are quick to say that she could turn it around, that defeat isn't a foregone conclusion. In doing so, however, they sound like nothing so much as our Democratic friends who insist that they can turn it around and keep the House (or, worst of all, Blanche Lincoln, whose apparent belief that she can dig herself out of an even deeper hole than O'Donnell's borders on delusional). Could it happen? Sure. Will it happen? Nope. I think that the fundamentals of this race are very unlikely to change in the next seven weeks.