In an otherwise dismal-looking election year for Democrats, the nation's second smallest state is proving to be a surprising consolation prize. Not only did Tea Party favorite Christine O'Donnell's surprise victory over Mike Castle in the Republican Senate primary suddenly make Democrat Chris Coons the favorite in the race, but also Dems are well positioned to capture Delaware's sole at-large House seat for the first time in 17 years.
They have Castle to thank for their good fortune in the House race. When the popular former governor announced in October 2009 his intention to run for Vice President Joe Biden's old Senate seat, suddenly Democrats got one of their best pickup opportunities. Republicans moved aggressively to defend the seat, but little has gone as planned.
Things started out normally enough. Democrats coalesced behind a candidate, former lieutenant governor John Carney, who got into the race early before Castle had even officially announced his Senate bid. That gave Carney a head start in lining up support and money: before any other serious Democratic contenders could gather their wits, he had raised $1.3 million, effectively clearing the field.
Worried about Carney's statewide name recognition and hefty war chest, Republicans scrambled to find a big name who could raise money quickly. They found a strong candidate in local philanthropist Michele Rollins. Rollins, Miss World USA 1963, and her late husband John W. Rollins Sr. built a fortune developing Jamaica's Montego Bay into a major vacation destination. According to Federal Election Commission reports, she's worth anywhere from $92 million to $350 million. With that big a fortune to dip into to fund her campaign, Rollins was at the top of the Republican Party's "wish list," Delaware's Republican Party chairman, Tom Ross, told Delaware Online in early 2010.
Yet the grass-roots wave that O'Donnell rode to the GOP Senate nomination wiped out those plans. Riding O'Donnell's coattails was Glen Urquhart, a Rehoboth Beach developer who enjoyed endorsements from the Family Research Council and most of Delaware's Tea Party groups, as well as from Sarah Palin and Senator Jim DeMint, O'Donnell's highest-profile backers. Urquhart beat Rollins by just 554 votes in Delaware's Sept. 14 primary.
Observers, though, consider Urquhart an easier candidate for Carney to beat. Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan group that tracks congressional races, changed its rating on the race from "lean Republican" to "lean Democrat" in early October. Urquhart trails Carney badly in fundraising: $700,000 $565,000 from his own pocket to Carney's $1.5 million. And at the polls, Carney has led Urquhart by double digits in every survey conducted since August. Still, with the Tea Party enthusiasm on Urquhart's side and a top-of-the-ticket name to draw them though O'Donnell is also losing in polls the race remains one to watch heading into the final sprint.