Dover, Delaware—"You have two stories ready to go, right?" It's about 7:30 p.m. at Christine O'Donnell's election-night party in Dover, and all the local reporters are crammed in the back, idly refreshing Politico and Twitter while waiting for the returns to come in. There's a man with a mustache and a baby blue O'Donnell t-shirt looming over us, grinning. "Cause you don't know which way it's going to go!," he explains. Of course, the journalists present all assume O'Donnell is going to lose her Senate race, and badly. Most of us are just there to watch the carnage. But the O'Donnell backer is undaunted: "You guys in the media just haven't gotten it yet!"
As the polls close, it's nearly futile to talk to any of O'Donnell's biggest fans. None of them want to chat about the campaign per se: When I identify myself as a reporter, they just want to explain how the media have completely distorted the race, how we've held O'Donnell to a double standard, how we've blown out of proportion things like her youthful foray into witchcraft or her mortgage default two years ago, and how we've stupidly assumed she will lose. One O'Donnell volunteer declines to tell me his name, but he does let me know that he once took a journalistic ethics class in college. "They probably don't teach that anymore...," he muses.
O'Donnell's party takes place at the Dover Downs hotel complex, in a conference room wedged between a casino and a racetrack. The similarities between horse-racing and political campaigns have been much-noted, but there's one crucial difference: At the track, even the most fervent bettor will usually accept with weary resignation when his favorite has stumbled and fallen out of contention. Here on election night, however, no one believes O'Donnell is actually going to lose.
Shortly after 8 p.m., just as O'Donnell's younger sister Jennie takes the stage to kick off the festivities, the two big TV screens in the room (tuned to Fox) declare O'Donnell's Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, the projected winner. For a moment, there's silence in the crowd and an audible, "Oh my god." But Jennie is undaunted: "Are you here to lift Christine O'Donnell to the United States Senate?" The crowd pauses, and then starts clapping loudly. Forget what the media's saying—victory is still possible.
As the returns come in, it becomes increasingly apparent that O'Donnell is in fact going to lose badly--and yet, it still takes a remarkably long while for the news to sink in. "There's just no way," one man declares defiantly when the Fox projections (with Coons the winner) come up for a second time. Another supporter scoffs, "They've only counted six percent of the precincts." Later it's "only 17 percent," then "only 77 percent."
Finally, at around 10 p.m., Christine O'Donnell herself takes the stage, flanked by a horde of relatives and staffers. "I cannot thank you enough," she announces to the cheering room. "We worked hard, we had an incredible victory. Be encouraged… WE HAVE WON. The Delaware political system will never be the same." There's laughter and some confusion in the crowd, and O'Donnell has to clarify: "My joking big brother goes: 'We won? Did we miss something?' You know what I meant."
Granted, many observers would say that O’Donnell didn’t change her state’s politics for the better: By helping her defeat moderate incumbent Mike Castle in the GOP primary, the Delaware Tea Party essentially conceded what should've been a safe seat for Republicans. And a lot of people in the conservative establishment aren’t happy about it: It's worth noting that, while CNN and MSNBC aired O'Donnell's speech, Fox News didn't bother showing it.
So why did O’Donnell lose so badly? There’s the seemingly obvious answer: She was waaaay too far out there for a blue state like Delaware. The anti-masturbation tirades, the bizarre "I'm not a witch… I'm you" ad, the opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. Another possibility, though, is that Delaware voters aren't as livid at the federal government as voters elsewhere in the country. After all, the state's 8.5 percent unemployment rate, while high, isn't nearly as high as it is in, say, Florida or Nevada.
Earlier in the day, I'd gone around to polling places in the Dover suburbs to interview voters. Kent County was supposed to be the state's swing county—if O'Donnell had done well here, she might have had a shot at victory. Everywhere I went, the roads were littered with O'Donnell signs, with nary a Coons volunteer to be found. And yet, most of the Republican voters I met seemed to be only mildly enthusiastic about O'Donnell, if slightly apologetic. "She was the one I could best relate to," said Paula Smith, a Smyrna resident who then hastened to add, "But I'm not one of those who thinks everything's Obama's fault. I just think we can't have the same people in office for twenty-eight years." A horse farmer who didn't want his name published just said, "Yeah, I went for O'Donnell. Didn't really know much about the other guy," and shrugged.
After awhile, I started to panic. I’d been trying to track down unruly Delaware Tea Partiers, but I was mostly just finding mild dissatisfaction instead. Yes, voters were upset with the general state of the economy—they especially hated cap-and-trade and "all the money we were sending to foreign countries," as one voter put it—but there didn't seem to be enough apocalyptic rage in Delaware to put O'Donnell over the top. "Our government could be doing some things better, but that's always the case," said Mildred Bland, an 81-year-old Smyrna resident who decided to vote for Coons at the last minute. It was a boring sentiment, but it may well have been what boosted Coons, the boring candidate, to victory.
It’s only at Dover Downs, where O'Donnell is gathered with her tight coterie of true believers, that the truly rowdy voters make themselves known: A "NO CHRIS COONS" sign, with the C's replaced with hammer-and-sickle logos, bobs in the crowd. Even the children are starstruck. ‘Look at her surrounded by the media frenzy," admires one twelve-year-old girl. "They're no match for her."
As Sarah Palin has proved, you don't need electoral success to be a star on the right—having an ego, ambition, and a small but ferociously loyal fan base is enough to keep you in the GOP firmament. The crowd speculates on what's next for O'Donnell: A Fox News gig? A challenge to Delaware's other Senator, Tom Carper, in 2012? In a post-speech media scrum, the candidate fends off all of these questions. "We're not even thinking about that right now," she says. But, she then adds, "A lot of opportunities have been presented to me."
She may have lost, but are these the last days of Christine O'Donnell? Hardly.
Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor at The New Republic.