Nothing ‘normal’ about this election

By CRIS BARRISH– The News Journal

As political seasons go in Delaware, 2010 could hardly have been weirder.

Two candidates who preached fiscal responsibility — running for state treasurer and the state House — were found to have previously failed to pay their own taxes. Two others — an incumbent representative and a sheriff — got arrested for drunken driving.

The Republican Party didn’t field a candidate for attorney general, but two write-in candidates — neither of them attorneys and one a convicted felon — mounted campaigns.

Another treasurer candidate alerted reporters that two women accused him of being physically abusive, including one case where he was charged with assault but acquitted. A House candidate who works for the state Department of Transportation got ticketed by DelDOT for having a campaign sign too close to the road.

A first-term House member who promoted his skills as a small-businessman was sued by his bank for more than $1 million. A state senator seeking re-election got a newly created $60,000-a-year public relations job for a school district that didn’t advertise the post beyond its website.

In a state where political attacks traditionally have been more likely whispered than broadcast, television viewers, newspaper readers and radio listeners have been assaulted by a cascade of negative ads and news about Delaware’s candidates. Each day, it seems, a thick new stack of fliers with hyperbolic, often specious claims have appeared in mailboxes.

Nor can voters forget “the issues” of 2010 as they prepare to cast their ballots today. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

Cap-and-trade, a little-known and ill-understood initiative to make industry pay for emitting carbon dioxide, somehow became a rallying cry for the low-tax, limited-government tea party movement. Fueled by voter rage and persistently high unemployment, their insurgent candidates have whipped GOP favorites in Delaware and across the nation, and now threaten Democrats.

Health care reform that Americans had been clamoring for was rebranded by critics as “Obamacare,” a sinister law that could doom the country.

Compromise, the age-old practice of putting ideology aside to pass the best law possible, became a scarlet letter that candidates strung around opponents’ necks.

All those stories, however, served as a mere sideshow to the U.S. Senate race.

Voters have been hit by a tsunami of ads, spoofs and commentary about dogcatchers, witches, masturbation, mice with human brains, evolution, Chinese plots and divine missions.

Christine O’Donnell’s opponent Chris Coons is a candidate thrust into the spotlight after the vice president’s son decided not to seek the seat for which he had been groomed. The glare has been harsh for Coons, who leads in polls but has been dubbed “tax man” and “bearded Marxist.”

And the GOP’s Mike Castle, a voice of moderation and conciliation in Delaware for four decades — someone polls say would have whipped Coons — found himself shoved to the sidelines, facing a retirement imposed by his own party.

To chronicle the unlikely and venomous Senate race, reporters and camera crews from all over the planet descended on tiny Delaware.

“This stuff is so wacky,” said Rhett Ruggerio, a Democratic national committeeman from Wilmington. “Delaware has always been seen as a normal state, you can’t get elected unless you are normal. That’s always been the standard line,” Ruggerio said.

The primary victory over Castle by O’Donnell, whose controversial statements, financial problems and uneven job history have been documented at length, has turned Delaware’s political world upside down, Ruggerio said. “Candidates aren’t worried about how they are viewed.” Said Albert Jackson, a longtime Republican: “It’s been extremely strange.”

The GOP primary for the U.S. House provided an early sign that 2010 was going to be radically different, that a baffling new day had dawned.

Glen Urquhart, who defeated party nominee Michele Rollins in a battle of multimillionaires, didn’t really campaign against her.

“He was attacking President Obama. I thought that was totally ridiculous,” Jackson said.

Ruggerio said that in retrospect, CNN’s recent hiring of Elliot Spitzer, who resigned in disgrace as governor of New York in 2008 after he was exposed as “Client 9” of an expensive prostitution ring, signaled a new era of political shamelessness.

“This guy goes down in flames and comes back as a talk-show host,” Ruggerio said. “I guess in the post-Clinton era, things don’t matter any more.” Former President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 but escaped removal from office for lying about sexual shenanigans with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Ross rues remark

Caught in the crosshairs of the 2010 cycle has been Delaware GOP Chairman Tom Ross, who predicted before the primary that the underdog O’Donnell couldn’t get elected “dogcatcher.” He has since reversed course and thrown his support, though lukewarm, to her.

Asked to assess the campaign year, Ross paused for a couple breaths before concluding: “There have been some interesting back stories, shall we say.”

Whether or not O’Donnell gets elected or suffers a loss in her third run for Senate will be decided today, but Ross acknowledged that his dogcatcher remark will live on in Delaware lore.

Joel K. Goldstein, a professor at St. Louis University School of Law who studies the vice presidency, said the January election of the GOP’s Scott Brown to the Senate seat in Massachusetts long held by the late Ted Kennedy heralded the start of an unprecedented political year across the nation.

“That was the turning point,” Goldstein said. “Losing Kennedy’s seat created a sense of vulnerability and it just sort of percolated down from there.”

Tea party-backed candidates have since toppled GOP favorites or won the party’s nomination in Arizona, Alaska, Utah and a few other states. Whether that will help the GOP’s chances of taking over Congress will be known tonight.

The Delaware Senate race “has been one of the stranger ones,” Goldstein said, because O’Donnell’s victory took a seat thought to be safely in the GOP’s hands and made the Democrat the favorite.

Joseph Pika, a University of Delaware political science professor, said that aside from tea party upsets, the year has been distinctive in Delaware and nationally because so many well-funded outside groups want their voices heard, often to make “unsubstantiated claims.”

In addition, he’s surprised by the “shrill denouncing” of the president and fellow Democratic leaders in Congress, all occurring amid the economic context of “growing despair as people anticipate little improvement and possibly a worsening of their situations.”

Grass-roots movements in previous tough times, such as in 1932 and at the end of the 19th century, “were not conducted in the context of modern communication technology with sophisticated messaging,” Pika said.

In Delaware, many observers say, the discontent and desire for political power has added up to a cacophony of political noise.

“What it boils down to is that our country has been dumbed down,” Jackson said. “It’s all so topsy turvy.”

Said Ruggerio: “There’s just weirdness everywhere.”