by John R. Bohrer
I knew Christine O’Donnell before you did. And by ‘you’ I mean ‘people in general.’ (And by ‘knew,’ definitely not like that guy that didn’t sleep with her several years ago.) I knew Christine O’Donnell because I drive to the Eastern Shore of Maryland a couple of times a year and I had seen her advertising on the first day of fall, 2008. Anyone who pulls off of US 95 onto Route 1 has a vague impression of the names of Delaware’s political candidates. Their signs are everywhere. But O’Donnell’s was the only one with the candidate’s headshot on it.
Her hair was curlier then, fuller and wavier maybe, and she looked really great. It was right before the exit 4 off-ramp toward the Christiana Mall. I remember it like it was yesterday.
O’Donnell’s sign also stood out because of what she was running for: the Senate. Against Joe Biden. The guy whose signs need only say “BIDEN.” In fact, that particular day I was headed to a talk on the 2008 campaign where Biden was originally supposed to be a panelist, but something had come up, and now he was on the TV every other hour talking about Scranton.
The economy was collapsing and John McCain was only a few hours away from suspending his campaign in an erratic move to retake the high ground. Things were looking pretty good for Team Obama-Biden (“O’Biden,” as the linguistically gifted would soon call them).
There’ll probably be an open Senate seat in Delaware soon, I thought. Maybe I’ll check out this Christine O’Donnell. What with her excellent pictures and all.
As I recall from my investigation, her 2008 website was primitive and short on substance. There was enough there, however, for me to tell that she was way, way out there on the right.
And so I never really gave her a second thought until the spring of this year, when I heard she was challenging Mike Castle, the Republican Congressman and former governor who had a Biden-esque aptitude for Delaware vote-getting.
Now, I have a special affinity for Mid-Atlantic politics, specifically that of the Delmarva peninsula. I went to college on the Eastern Shore (the same no-name institution that made Bill Clegg turn to crack) and I have a lot of friends from around there. I’m also something of a political junkie — I get more calls around major political events than I do on my birthday. On the night of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, I was the one who broke it to my (decidedly feminist) aunt about the Des Moines Register poll that said Hillary Clinton was likely to lose. She didn’t say it outright, but I’m pretty sure she was furious with me for the next two months.
So I keep an eye on Maryland and Delaware politics as a matter of friendship and general curiosity. And Christine O’Donnell’s quixotic candidacy was fascinating.
At first, she seemed like a sure loser. I mean, look at who she was running against. You do not beat Joe Biden or Mike Castle. If Delaware politics was Fight Club, those would be the first and second rules.
But then we had the mighty primary shakeups of 2010, where the Sharron Angles and Rand Pauls were not only coming out of the woodwork, they were chewing through the crossbeams. And the idea of Christine O’Donnell becoming a contender — not even winning, I mean, just being competitive in her primary… well, it didn’t seem so otherworldly.
Still, she was getting absolutely no attention. In late July, David Broder, the dinosaur of DC bigfoots, went to Middletown to write about how in a year of partisan savagery, the First State’s U.S. Senate race was nice and civil. Broder laid it on real thick. (“To cure your cynicism, just visit Delaware.”)
Not only did he deign Castle the next senator, but he talked about what a breath of fresh air it was all going to be compared to the rest of the mouthbreathers in the Republican caucus.
And brazenly enough, that’s exactly what Castle wanted him to write. Especially when he was feeding Broder lines like this: “I don’t plan to be part of the opposition. I think I can do more than oppose.”
Wow. I sent the clip to my friend Joan, with these comments:
I’m surprised that Castle’s rhetoric is so accommodating to Democrats when he still has a primary challenger to deal with (Christine O’Donnell, who ran against Biden in ‘08). [This was July 29, back when you had to remind people that there was another Republican running against Castle, let alone that her name was Christine O’Donnell.] Broder doesn’t even mention her. Wonder if it will inspire Sarah Palin, who has been endorsing lots of female Republican candidates, to back O’Donnell?
Ah yes, Palin and her ‘Mama Grizzlies.’ Surely O’Donnell would qualify, even though her official campaign headquarters was, oh, her house.
Well, a few days later, Palin waded into a Mid-Atlantic Republican primary… in Maryland. Former Governor Bob Ehrlich had said early in his comeback campaign that he didn’t want or need Palin’s help. So she endorsed his novice challenger, who was younger and had even less political experience than O’Donnell did. In all likelihood, it had nothing to do with the young man’s credentials; it was a move of pure spite.
But still, I thought to myself: ‘Wow, Christine O’Donnell is even too wacky for Sarah Palin.’
That’s not to say Delaware can’t get kind of crazy. Not a whole lot to do around there. Most people have already forgotten where the town hall screamfests of 2009 got going. The cable channels were sending camera crews to podunk constituent forums (repeat: CONSTITUENT FORUMS) because some psycho stood up at a, yes, Mike Castle town hall and, after shouting and waving her birth certificate in the air, had the entire room on their feet reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Within two minutes, that lady had stripped David Broder’s moderate, non-opposition Republican superhero of all control and composure. So if she could whip that room into lockstep, I figured there just had to be some O’Donnell freaks around there somewhere. Still: nary a blip from the national press.
And then Lisa Murkowski lost in Alaska, which was another unexpected jolt from the tea party defibrillator. And it just so happened that of all fifty states, the only major Republican primaries left were in New York and… Delaware.
Now Mike Castle was spooked, and it turned out the band of geniuses running his campaign thought the best line of attack was an ad that essentially said, “She Can’t Even Pay Her Bills!” which is an OK strategy, except, you know, DURING A RECESSION.
While I’m sure it was a big hit with three credit industry executives in Wilmington, it was perhaps the most tone-deaf attack ad of the year.
Not that O’Donnell’s people were any smarter. The media caught onto the race about a day after people affiliated with her campaign tried to start a rumor that Castle was locked in a gay love affair. Seriously.
It was rank amateur crazy like that that convinced me no major conservatives would ever embrace her. The Tea Party Express just wanted to hassle Castle — to throw an inside pitch for 2014, when the Biden seat would be up again.
And then. Five days before the primary, Palin sent her blessing — the answer to PRAYERS, according to Team Christine (because apparently when you pray to God, you’re really praying to Sarah Palin).
Then Jim DeMint endorsed. And then Castle was kaput. And then O’Donnell was bewitching the nation with her message of human-brained mice and the pitfalls of self-stimulation. The more that I looked at her, the less she resembled that striking image I had seen on the side of the highway two years earlier.
It was then that I knew. Oh poster-girl, you belong to all of America now. Here’s looking at you, Christine O’Donnell 2008. We’ll always have the exit 4 off-ramp.
John R. Bohrer spent his summer obsessing about bit players in American politics, Rod Blagojevich (predicting the holdout verdict down to the count) and a book about RFK, 1964 to 1968. He’s still doing all but one of those things.