THE BLOG

Delaware Races Intensify In Lead Up To Primary

09/14/2010 11:35 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Divisions in the Delaware Republican Party are likely to make it easier for the Democratic nominee, former Lt. Gov. John Carney, to make Delaware's lone House seat one of the few Democratic pickups this year.

Sarah Palin's endorsement of Christine O'Donnell in the GOP Senate primary against Mike Castle added fuel to the fire in the most heated battle the party has seen in decades. The tone of that struggle is spilling over into the contest for the House seat now held by Castle, who was twice elected governor before being serving nine terms in Congress.

The House contest also pits an establishment favorite against an insurgency led by a relative newcomer. Glen Urquhart is mounting a Tea Party fueled campaign for the GOP House nomination against the party's endorsed candidate, Michele Rollins.

Public Policy Polling asked Republican voters over the weekend about the contests for the House and Senate nominations. In a stunning result, the poll shows O'Donnell with a narrow lead of 47 to 44 over Castle. Urquhart leads Rollins by 50 to 38. Fully 30 percent think the Republican Party is too liberal.

The ugly contests shaking the Republican Party will make it even easier for Carney, already considered the front runner, to take a House seat from the GOP column in November. A win for O'Donnell and Urquhart would likely hand the Senate seat to Chris Coons, giving Democrats two big wins in a Republican year. Time quotes state GOP chairman Tom Ross as reported as saying that if O'Donnell wins, "it could bring down the whole ticket."

Michele Rollins has deep roots in the GOP establishment. Her late husband John was a big donor to Republicans going back at least to Richard Nixon. She spent ten years as a government lawyer in the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency before marrying and settling down in Delaware to help run the family business empire.

Urquhart has worked hard to harness the Tea Party passions of the moment, as he did in one cringe-worthy comment captured on YouTube:

"The exact phrase 'separation of church and state' came out of Adolf Hitler's mouth. That's where it comes from. The next time your liberal friends talk about separation of church and state, ask them why they're Nazis."

Urquhart later called the comment an "April mistake" adding it "was not as skillfully worded as I would like to have been."

Rollins and Urquhart were both campaigning at an arts festival in Wilmington on Sunday, standing no more than forty feet from each other. When I asked Urquhart how the divisions would affect the party, he said that he "wants to be a healer" after Tuesday's primary, though he added that the party would have to stand on conservative principles. Rollins said, "The Republican Party has to come together," while placing the onus of making up on the other campaign, saying "Old Delaware would never do or say the kinds of things we have seen in this campaign."

Rollins has lived in Delaware since marrying her late husband John in 1977; Urquhart is a more recent arrival. But the Old Delaware tone has more to do with decorum than with chronology. Tea Party insurgents like O'Donnell and Urquhart have little patience for the niceties of the Delaware Way.

In another sign of the fault lines in the campaign, Colin Powell has made a donation to the Rollins campaign. Mainstream Republicans see this as a vote of confidence, while hard line conservatives see Powell's support as a kiss of betrayal.

John Carney, who hosted campaign event at a Wilmington tavern on Friday, is happy to let the other side slug it out.

"The issue in the campaign is who the voters trust to represent their interests in Washington," he told me. Even in the face of the conservative insurgency, he is confident that Delaware, which has trended blue in recent elections, will be true to its colors and send him to Congress.