Why Write-In Shouldn’t Be Right Out

While performing our own mid-term election post-mortem, we began discussing how, in certain races, Republicans pulled defeat from the jaws of victory. To put it another way: Mike Castle should feel like the world’s biggest heel. When one views what Lisa Murkowski accomplished as a write-in candidate in Alaska, after being defeated in her party’s primary by a Tea Party candidate, all one can ask is, “Why didn’t Mike Castle do what she did?”

Let’s take a moment to recall what was occurring at the time that Mike Castle was defeated in his party’s primary by newcomer Christine O’Donnell. In May, incumbent Utah Senator Bob Bennett, unfairly labeled a RINO for voting for TARP, was defeated in his primary by Tea Party candidate Mike Lee despite an 84% rating from the American Conservative Union; Charlie Crist lost ground to Tea Party candidate Marco Rubio in Florida’s Senate race; and in Alaska Lisa Murkowski was beaten in her party’s primary by Tea Party candidate Joe Miller (more on this race in a moment). There was a genuine feeling across the far-right that all “RINOs” were vulnerable, and that 2010 was the year to take them all out. But as was discussed in Drae’s previous post, Tea Party: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, national fervor trumped local electoral realities and the end result was a Castle loss and a significant disadvantage in the general election for the Delaware GOP.

How do we know this? Castle was a popular nine-term incumbent Senator and held a large lead head-to-head against Democrat nominee Chris Coons in virtually all polls. If we look at the breakdown of the party affiliation of registered voters in the state of Delaware (those pesky local realities again) Castle’s success is truly remarkable.

621,746 Registered Voters
292,738 (47 percent) Democrat
182,796 (29 percent) Republican
146,212 (24 percent) Other

What this shows is that, first and foremost, Delaware is a blue, blue state.  Secondly, it shows that 29% of registered voters should have realized that the candidate that emerged from their party would have to be palatable to the remaining 71% of the electorate.  That is if they wanted to, you know, win.  Better judgment was tossed aside and Delaware Independents and Blue-Dog Democrats (formerly Mike Castle voters) were given a Far-right (with a capital F) Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell as an alternative to liberal candidate Chris Coons.  The first polling data on the newly minted O’Donnell-Coons matchup showed Coons leading O’Donnell by 11%. One week later, Coons was ahead by 21%. What should have been a sure bet win for Castle instead became a win for the democrats, handed to them on a silver platter.

That brings us to the aforementioned primary race in Alaska, starring Lisa Murkowski as the losing moderate Republican candidate.  A refresher may be in order for this contentious primary battle as well. On August 24, Tea Party Joe Miller narrowly defeated Lisa Murkowski by a mere 1,630 votes. On August 28, amid an absentee ballot count and before Murkowski had even conceded her primary race, PPP polling data showed that in a head-to-head race Lisa Murkowski led Democrat Scott McAdams by a margin of 60%-28% (an almost insurmountable lead of 32%).  That same poll reported that a Miller-McAdams combination yielded a much narrower Republican victory at 47%-39%, an 11% gain for Scott McAdams.  On August 31, McAdams gained another 5 percentage points and Miller’s lead was down to 6%.

The Murkowski camp clearly sensed an opportunity and within days she announced her write-in campaign. Maligned by the Alaska GOP and labeled “futile” by supposed king-maker Sarah Palin, Murkowski diligently made her case to the Alaskan electorate. In about a week, Miller dropped from a 15% lead to 2%, with Murkowski gaining the momentum. The rest, as they say, is history.

So what does this all mean for Mike Castle? It means that, in the context of what Lisa Murkowski accomplished, Castle would have had an easier hill to climb based on the relative swings that occurred by running a Tea Party candidate.  As we have already shown, the Alaska Senate race swung 26% in favor of the Democrat when Lisa Murkowski’s name was replaced by Joe Miller.  In Delaware that swing was a whopping 33%, putting the race solidly in the hands of the Democrat. These numbers suggest, that had Mike Castle run as a write-in candidate, he would have likely won. Why – “Castle” is even easier to spell.

Unfortunately, Christine O’Donnell became a national punchline and the face of the Tea Party movement, on par with Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. It is entirely possible that the negative image that she brought to the Tea Party cost GOP candidates in other races. And most obviously, it cost the GOP a much-needed vote in the Senate. Tea Party apologists choose to view this as a fair price to pay for ridding the party of a “RINO,” but to us it looks more like trading a man who will vote with the GOP 55% of the time for a man who will vote with the GOP 0% of the time. While we understand that this is all in hindsight (after all, Lisa Murkowski’s campaign as a write-in was something that few politicians have tried) the impact that Mike Castle’s decision to not continue his campaign had on Delaware and the GOP, both locally and nationally, is a lesson which both parties should heed: the middle wins elections, not purity tests.

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