The Fall (and Rise?) of Christine O’Donnell
Chris Coons brought only his nearest and dearest to the stage at the Doubletree Hotel in Wilmington Tuesday night after being declared Delaware's new senator. The union members and other party foot soldiers who had worked for weeks to put him there, talking at doorstops, dropping leaflets, making calls and standing in a biting cold on Election Day, said they understood. This was his moment, no need to invite snarls about "special interests"; it was a nice gesture that earlier he had even considered having them on the stage, an autoworker who lost his job two years ago told me. But in the next day's papers the victory image—a polished political family with three beautifully scrubbed children, their futures secured by Gore-Tex—willy-nilly struck the note that Christine O'Donnell had amplified to make this election season in Delaware the weird opera that it was.
O'Donnell, as it turns out, never was a contender. She lost the race with Coons pretty much as she had started it, seventeen points behind. She spent a great swathe of the race bemoaning the media's unfair treatment, but got more free, respectful press than any longshot candidate in memory, and more national press than any candidate running this year. Calling herself a "citizen politician," an outsider, an ordinary person versus the well-heeled, well-connected Coons, her campaign operated like the closed circle around a diva. It raised $4.9 million, compared with Coons's $3.2 million, a difference made manifest in ominous commercials that crowded the airwaves, and in mailings that, according to one politically savvy two-party couple from suburban Wilmington, outnumbered those of Coons by at least six to one. At rallies she sang the interests of the rich, extolling the power of unshackled markets, starved government and the specter of the "death tax" in a register that thrilled even audiences with barely two nickels to rub together. In person she emanated warmth—"America's sweetheart," men called her—even as her campaign materials came with claws. And up until the end, she spoke of secret polls and a subterranean "power of the people" that would shock all of Delaware in November as it had the state's Republican establishment a couple of months before.
She lost for the same reason that she got so much attention. "I'm not a witch.… I'm you," she said flirtatiously in her first commercial. The "witch" part took off in the same media-churn machine that made her a star, but that's not what did her in. And it's not credible that, as she later claimed, the ad went out by mistake, given that its TV broadcast was preceded by a most deliberate and enthusiastic sneak preview via internet from Team Christine to supporters. The real mistake was the second part of the formulation.
"I'm you" spoke to her most passionate fans, but in the absence of any other meaningful message, "I'm you" also motivated others whose reality she seemed unable to fathom. On Election Day at duPont Middle School in central Wilmington, voters streamed in at a rate higher than the state turnout of 48 percent. Black people, young people, the old with canes or walkers, a lot of women while I was there. Outside the school were four AFSCME members and half a dozen lifelong friends of Delaware State Representative Dennis P. Williams, who was running unopposed but working the polls nonetheless. A fellow who has a small moving business and some of his workers wore T-shirts thanking people for voting Democratic and softly told arriving voters, "Yes we can." Against this vivid, bantering scene was a man who looked as if he had spent many hard nights in the cold with a bottle of Thunderbird, slumped alone and wearing an O'Donnell T-shirt. It was a job, $10 an hour; voters recognized that. But the national faction that embraced O'Donnell had made Obama a cartoon from jump, and now her campaign had hired the most down-and-out black people to work central city polling places to say what—"I'm you"? It was an insult.
Coons got 94 percent of the black vote, exit polls say. He got 63 percent of the women's vote, an outcome prefigured by the weeks of letters to the editor in local papers from women angrily distinguishing their work, their politics, their bodies, themselves from Christine. Who knows what percentage of Mike Castle Republicans he got, but I met Republican candidates who in private conversation barely concealed their antipathy to O'Donnell. One had an unflattering Halloween mask of her in the car on Election Day.
These are the North Delaware Republicans whose political bloodline traces to the duPonts, the Newcastle County party that for so long has set the rules and defined the priorities, that has kept Southern Republicans out of power and in their place. Northern Republicans live where Chris Coons lives. They play politics the way polite society plays it. They were O'Donnell's first target, and the first to sigh relief when she lost. They won along with Coons, but their victory is not sure.
O'Donnell's people, for whom the slogan "I'm you" is the only necessary requisite for support, may be cynically exploited, but they are not cynical. Many have tasted politics for the first time, converts to the life of making change. At a rally in Kent County outside Dover one asked me, "Aren't you at least excited about Christine as a woman? Doesn't her running tell you that you could do it too? That you could do anything?" There is the essence of her appeal: if her, why not me? Why not me to count for something?
The people I met who loved her most don't care about the Republican Party. They call its leaders "corrupt" and "phony." The party, they said, is merely the available vehicle to "change the country." Those assembled in Kent County were different from the more solidly middle class who gathered to see her in Wilmington. Many in Dover had lost their homes, their health, their patience. How much she knew by the usual standard of politics was irrelevant. "She knows me," people said, and when she stumbled or was laughed at, they felt the sting. More than Coons or even Obama, the force driving them was their own long exile from the world of people who mattered, and Christine was their version of Jesse Jackson, allowing them to say, "I am Somebody!" but without the latter's vision for the whole.
Before it was the toast of the Tea Party, O'Donnell's campaign was the revenge of the discarded and ignored, the people who fell by the side of the road while the economy was busy making bankers and call center clerks and IT specialists; while it was battering organized labor and with it a sense of class consciousness and direction, sorting out the winners and letting the losers fend for themselves. Christine O'Donnell was their avatar and heroine, and if she goes on to TV celebrity and wealth, those who identified with her most fervently will probably view her rise the way one would a success in the family. They will no more disappear because of her defeat than the conditions that produced them.