- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2010

The aftershocks from Alaska are being felt clear across the country in Delaware.

Days after underdog Joe Miller knocked off Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary there, Delaware GOP Rep. Michael N. Castle - long seen as a prohibitive favorite to capture the state’s open Senate seat in November - announced plans for a major ad buy targeting his own “tea party”-backed rival ahead of the Sept. 14 primary.

Mr. Castle, a moderate who has long faced complaints from the party’s more conservative wing over his voting record, faces a feisty challenge from tea party candidate Christine O’Donnell in a race that has already turned nasty. The winner will take on soon-to-be Democratic nominee Chris Coons, executive of New Castle County.

Mr. Castle had spent much of the summer ignoring Ms. O’Donnell’s long-shot campaign, but the Alaska stunner, coupled with a recent infusion of cash and endorsements for the insurgent O’Donnell candidacy, have Mr. Castle, state Republican Party officials and the Washington GOP establishment scrambling to avoid another ambush.

The Tea Party Express, whose aid was considered crucial in Mr. Miller’s late surge against Mrs. Murkowski last month, announced Wednesday it would spend between $250,000 and $600,00 on Ms. O’Donnell’s behalf in the last two weeks of the campaign.

Her campaign had already been gathering momentum, after high-profile endorsements from columnist-blogger Michelle Malkin and radio talk-show host Mark Levin.

According to the political website Hotline, the Castle campaign is anxious not to repeat Mrs. Murkowski’s mistake in underestimating her challenger, purchasing almost $200,000 worth of television and radio time to respond to the tea party surge.

For now, the Castle campaign said it isn’t planning to use the air time to attack Ms. O’Donnell. But Mr. Castle’s allies in the state GOP and in Washington are already going negative on the tea party candidate.

The Delaware GOP this week launched a new website, RealChristine.com, that details the three-time Senate candidate’s ongoing personal financial woes - an outstanding IRS debt, a judgment on a foreclosed house and unpaid bills from her 2008 bid to unseat then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Ms. O’Donnell, who has gained traction in the race by making her candidacy a referendum on her opponent’s nine terms in Congress, struggled on the air Thursday to respond to the ramped-up attacks.

She is making efforts to retire her 2008 debt, she told Delaware radio talk-show host Dan Gaffney on WGMD-FM.

“I am not a millionaire, and I did not come from an elite family like Mike Castle,” she said. “I’m not ignoring the debt … and we are paying that off.”

She also dismissed accusations that people in her own campaign are using smears and rumors to cut into Mr. Castle’s lead in the polls.

The influential conservative website RedState.com in August cited sources in Ms. O’Donnell’s campaign for a report predicting that Mr. Castle would follow the example of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and switch parties after the election.

The new hardball tactics from the Castle camp, Ms. O’Donnell said, “shows you how scared they are of me.”

For her part, Ms. O’Donnell has tried to paint the 71-year-old congressman as a “RINO” - Republican in name only - for his support of the $700 Wall Street bailout plan, funds for embryonic stem cell research and “cap-and-trade” climate legislation.

Polling in the state shows Mr. Castle holding a consistent lead over Mr. Coons, though a Rasmussen Reports poll in July also showed Ms. O’Donnell beating the Democrat. The seat has symbolic importance for both parties as it was long held by Mr. Biden, now vice president.

Delaware Democrats are hopeful the ascendency of Ms. O’Donnell could make the November race more competitive, even if she doesn’t win on Sept. 14.

Ms. O’Donnell’s challenge may force Mr. Castle to the right to clinch the primary, making his task in the general election more difficult in a Democratic-leaning state.

Conservative blogger Fred Bauer warned tea party activists to be careful what they wish for, saying a tea party candidate like Ms. O’Donnell would face a tough road this fall.

“Delaware ain’t Alaska or Utah or Nevada,” Mr. Bauer wrote.

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