There's an old saying in politics: "Campaigns are run one election at a time."
For Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell it's on to the next one.
The Tea Party-backed O'Donnell pulled off what many considered the impossible: beating long-time Congressman Mike Castle in the Republican primary for the seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden in 2008.
Until about two weeks ago, O'Donnell was having what some political observers would call "a tough campaign." Castle had successfully painted her as an inexperienced, debt-ridden outsider who couldn't win the Big One (never mind that she was actually polling ahead of Democratic incumbent Chris Coons in July).
Just a few days ago, many political observers believed Castle was actually looking past O'Donnell to the general election. It was fairly obvious to everyone paying attention that Castle believed he was the better candidate and that O'Donnell didn't deserve to be in the same race with him.
Unfortunately for him, the former governor and nine-term Congressman failed to appropriately convince Delaware's voting Republicans of that fact. To the tune of six points.
In fairness to Castle, he was up three points just three weeks ago, so a certain confidence may have been warranted. Certainly, no candidate should ever completely overlook his opponent, but Castle had every reason in the world to be cautiously optimistic.
So how does O'Donnell go up nine points in just two weeks?
Sarah Palin. That's how.
The former Alaska governor met briefly with O'Donnell at Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally on Aug. 28, and later hinted in a Twitter post that she liked what she saw. The actual endorsement came on Sept. 9, when Palin called in to the Sean Hannity show and offered the underdog her support. O'Donnell was apparently the last to know, however, because Palin didn't mention it to her before offering up the endorsement.
High turnout from conservatives was certainly not in Castle's best interest. He has a lengthy history of leaning left, so much so that his critics on the right often refer to him as a RINO (Republican In Name Only). O'Donnell meanwhile, has never shied away from her conservative positions, and in fact, gamely called out Biden in 2008, when he was simultaneously running for vice president and senator at the same time.
As it became clear that conservatives were indeed going to cast primary ballots in large numbers thanks to Palin's endorsement, Castle quickly shifted gears, changing his tune from attacks on O'Donnell's character to attacks on her chances of victory in the fall. Although the official stance of the Delaware Republican Party was neutral, it was fairly clear that Delaware's GOP establishment was fully behind Castle. In the final days, the Republican machine sent out a powerful message that a vote for O'Donnell on Sept. 14 was a vote for Coons on Nov. 2.
But the power of Palin's endorsement is not to be underestimated. After a shaky start in the New York Congressional Special Election last year, Palin is now firmly established as a king- (and queen-) maker, regardless of what happens in November. Her endorsements have resulted in several major primary victories recently: Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Carly Fiorina in California, Joe Miller in Alaska and now O'Donnell in Delaware. Palin's endorsement quickly translated into energy and cash for O'Donnell, the two things she needed most in the waning days of the campaign.
Whether O'Donnell can beat Coons in November remains to be seen, but neither Republicans nor Democrats should count her out. After all, the same Republicans who believed Castle would sail to victory over O'Donnell in September now find themselves with O'Donnell as their candidate November. With or without Palin's help, O'Donnell seems to understand what Castle didn't:
Campaigns are run one election at a time.
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