WILMINGTON, Del.--On the eve of the primary that would end his electoral career, Rep. Mike Castle was in a reflective mood. He seemed calm and confident, yet almost everything he said sounded valedictory as he offered a prescient analysis that explained in advance a defeat that echoed throughout the nation.
A genial and courtly man in the manner of the elder President Bush (who held a fundraiser for him in Kennebunkport), the nine-term congressman was mourning the decline of both the conciliatory style of politics that animated his career and the moderate Republican disposition that the Tea Party is determined to destroy.
“There are issues on which, as Republicans and Democrats, we should sit down and work out our differences,” Castle said Monday night as we sat outside at Kelly’s Logan House, a watering hole where he has gathered his closest supporters the night before every election since his first victory, for the neighborhood’s state legislative seat, in 1966.
Republicans who might be inclined toward the middle of the road, he said, are petrified of “quick attacks by columnists and the Sean Hannitys of the world. People are very afraid of crossing the line and being called Republicans In Name Only—or worse.” As a result, “not too many members are willing to stand up.”
“Part of it,” he added, “is worry about primaries, and this election has shown the power of very conservative groups.”
Castle’s defeat at the hands of Christine O’Donnell, a perennial candidate who may be the least qualified Senate nominee anywhere in the country, does indeed mark the collapse of the Republican Party not only of Nelson Rockefeller and Tom Dewey, but also of Bob Dole and Howard Baker.
After two decades in which moderates fled a party increasingly dominated by its right wing, the Republican primary electorate has been reduced to nothing but its right wing. O’Donnell, boosted by a last minute anti-Castle spending spree from the California-based Tea Party Express, pulled off her revolution with a little over 30,000 votes. That’s all it took to seize control of a once Grand Old Party in which the center no longer has the troops.
When I visited Castle’s headquarters on Monday night at Riverfront Wilmington—a classic bipartisan economic development project backed by Castle—the storefront was welcoming, but not bustling. Only a half-dozen people were working the phones, a brave but paltry band standing against the Tea Party tide.
Sen. Ted Kaufman, a Democrat appointed to what had been Joe Biden’s Senate seat pending the outcome of this election, noted in an interview that most Mike Castle-style Republicans in northern Delaware aren’t Republican anymore. “There was a move of moderate Republicans becoming independents, and independents becoming Democrats,” he said.
The same pattern is visible in the nearby Philadelphia suburbs in Montgomery, Delaware and Bucks counties. The forces that drove Sen. Arlen Specter out of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania defeated Castle in Delaware.
The conventional Washington talking point holds that as Republicans have moved right, the Democrats have moved left. But this is patently false—just count the number of moderate Democratic House members. And one politician who sees no equivalence is Castle. The domination of a party by its most ideological wing, he said, “is a more extensive problem right now in the Republican Party than in the Democratic Party.”
He also offered a prediction: “I’d be willing to bet dollars to donuts that my opponent could not win a general election in this state for this seat—or any other seat.”
Yes, the Tea Party has just about handed Delaware’s Senate election to Democratic nominee Chris Coons, the young New Castle County executive who was transformed from an underdog to Castle on Tuesday morning to the overwhelming favorite against O’Donnell by late evening.
But the larger question is whether the country is ready to deliver a majority to a Republican Party that now holds problem-solvers like Castle in contempt, is scared to death of a well-financed right wing that parades under a false populist banner, and, in primary after primary, has aligned itself with Sarah Palin, who anointed O’Donnell one of her Grizzlies.
Will moderate voters take a chance on the preposterous proposition that this Republican Party will turn around and work in a calm, bipartisan way with President Obama? Or will they use their ballots to wake up the Republicans and tell them that they need more Mike Castles, and fewer extremists?
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of, most recently, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right.