Christine O'Donnell: The Next Tea Party Surprise?

The summer of 2010 has witnessed conservatives sprouting like green blades from the Republican primary field, knocking off incumbents and establishment-backed favorites who were once thought to have their party's nomination sealed up.

In Alaska, attorney Joe Miller is on the verge of a shocking upset of Sen. Lisa Murkowski; in Nevada, Sharron Angle came from nowhere to defeat former state GOP chair Sue Lowden; in Utah, Sen. Bob Bennett was defeated at his state convention and attorney Mike Lee went on to win; in Kentucky, Tea Party favorite Rand Paul beat out Senate Minority Mitch McConnell's pick, Secretary of State Trey Grayson.

It appears Delaware could be next.

Moderate Republican Congressman Mike Castle has been running for the state's open U.S. Senate seat, formerly held by Vice President Biden, since last October, as the GOP's presumed nominee.

Having represented the state's only congressional district for 18 years, Castle caught a break when Democrats failed to recruit Beau Biden, son of the VP, to run for his father's old seat. Elections guru Stu Rothenberg remarked to Time's Jay Newton-Small last year that Castle could tilt the race from a Democratic win to a toss-up just by entering. He did enter, and he now polls well ahead f the Democrat, New Castle County Executive Chris Coons--by 12 or 13 percentage points, depending on which poll one reads.

Far from his party's right wing, Castle has been known for supporting embryonic stem cell research, sponsoring a bill with Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette that passed the House in 2007.

But Castle finds himself suddenly up against a serious primary challenge, from Christine O'Donnell, a political commentator and marketing consultant who was described by state Republican Chairman Tom Ross as "a perennial candidate who lacks the standing in Delaware to get elected to anything." O'Donnell ran and lost against the vice president in 2008.

With a big endorsement issued earlier this week, O'Donnell is suddenly on everyone's radar.

O'Donnell has been running since March, though major pollsters haven't been surveying Republican primary voters. Public Policy Polling shows her trailing Coons by only seven percentage points in a potential general-election matcup, 37 percent to 44 percent. According to The American Spectator's Robert Stacy McCain, O'Donnell has the help of online conservative activist Eric Odom, who helped facilitate Tea Party activism when the movement rose in early 2009.

But her candidacy was bolstered this week when Tea Party Express announced it would back O'Donnell in her challenge to Castle. That group is largely responsible for the (apparent) success of Miller in Alaska and Angle in Nevada, having poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into those races on their behalves.

Tea Party Express is aiming to spend close to $250,000 on O'Donnell's candidacy between now and the September 14th primary, spokesman Levi Russell said today. No one expected Miller to win in Alaska, but Tea Party Express spent over $580,000 in two and a half months to secure a vote lead on election night (absentee ballots are now being counted). They'll try to do the same in Delaware in a span of two weeks, concentrating heavily on TV and radio ads that are in the making right now. The group hasn't conducted any polling in Delaware; it's just going on the scarce public data that's out there already.

Castle, however, may have some ammunition with which to hit O'Donnell if she does surge, as some are now expecting her to, with the media backing of Tea Party Express.

After O'Donnell announced her candidacy in March, the Wilmington News Journal ran a story on O'Donnell's financial struggles, both in and out of politics, reporting that: O'Donnell's campaign committee owed $13,000 more than it had in the bank (debt left over from the '08 bid) and that O'Donnell was sued by her mortgage holder during the heat of her '08 campaign as she struggled to pay but sold her house to a lawyer for her Senate campaign in order to become solvent.

The News Journal's Ginger Gibson also reported that O'Donnell owed over $11,000 in back-taxes, though O'Donnell says this is a mistake and the IRS told her it filed an erroneous lien due to a "computer error." O'Donnell has posted a letter from the IRS to her website, from before the lien was filed, saying she was entitled to some tax relief.

Answering questions on her back taxes and debt, O'Donnell seemed to blame the Castle campaign, telling Gibson:

"This type of malicious behavior from supporters of a desperate career politician is to be expected because he cannot defend his big spending, liberal voting record," O'Donnell said Friday when asked about past legal troubles. "Just because the lords of the backroom have an obnoxious sense of entitlement to promote one of their own, doesn't mean their gutter politics are in the best interests of the voters."

The News Journal story is only online here, reproduced on a site evidently set up to attack O'Donnell (information and quotes above were checked on Lexis Nexis). It paints a sometimes sympathetic picture of O'Donnell: she sued her former employer for gender discrimination but dropped the suit--after said employer claimed she was running a for-profit business on the clock--claiming she couldn't afford an attorney. She faced mortgage troubles in the midst of her Senate campaign, selling the house apparently to evade action from her mortgage holder.

"I think the fact that I have struggled financially is what makes me so sympathetic," O'Donnell told Gibson.

But given that O'Donnell and Tea Party Express (which was not aware of O'Donnell's financial struggles) are attempting to attack Castle on fiscal grounds, it seems Castle will try to use these shades of financial problems, with the help of some insinuation, to undermine a campaign of fiscal responsibility.