Everything in Moderation: Part I

The next time you hear a casual political observer express surprise that the Donald Trump phenomenon doesn’t seem to be coming to an end, remind them that the Republican Party’s devotion to derpitude is nothing new. In fact, we’re coming up on the fifth anniversary of one such flashpoint in flagrant foolishness.

On September 14, 2010, the Tea Party movement engineered the defeat of Rep. Mike Castle in a primary to determine the Republican Party’s nominee for a special election to complete the term of Senator Joseph Biden, who vacated the seat when he became Vice President (Ted Kaufman served as interim Senator between Biden’s departure and the conclusion of the special election). Castle lost to Christine O’Donnell, a gay-bashing sexual moralist and all-around hot mess who was an embarrassment even to fellow Republicans.

Castle, a former Delaware governor, voted against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act, but that wasn’t enough to appease the Tea Party. Why did the right consider Castle too far left? Because Castle dared to say that human-caused climate change was real, and voted for the American Clean Energy and Security Act to address carbon pollution:

Conservative Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell shocked the state by seizing a surprise primary victory over Republican Rep. Mike Castle, a longtime moderate lawmaker who suffered withering attacks for supporting cap and trade last year…

O’Donnell sought to excite conservatives by repeatedly warning that Democrats would proceed with major climate legislation, including cap and trade, after their numbers are reduced in the November elections, but before losing lawmakers leave office in January.

She cautioned that Castle could be the deciding climate vote in the lame-duck session of Congress. She also described herself as casting the critical vote that would sink it. She portrayed the election as urgent because the winner in November will be appointed immediately to finish the final four years of Biden’s term.

“Castle is a big supporter of cap and trade,” O’Donnell said recently on FOX News. “Nobody wants this bill. In this race, I am the only candidate who has pledged to not only vote against it but advocate against it. So people are looking at this as perhaps me being that filibuster vote.”

The race became the focus of conservatives in the past two weeks. Sarah Palin endorsed O’Donnell on Sept. 9, saying she is “against Obama’s ‘cap and tax’ scheme” and the new health care law. Tea party leaders Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) also weighed in on O’Donnell’s behalf…

O’Donnell’s strategy was to motivate conservatives in the south by attacking Castle as a liberal Republican who sides with Democrats. She rained fliers into the area warning of an “Obama-Castle agenda” that included cap and trade.

It struck home in Bridgeville, where a flag declaring “Don’t Tread on Me” hung from a house near a country crossroads.

“What global warming?” asked Bob Pucci, an O’Donnell supporter who is suspicious of government regulation of greenhouse gases. “I don’t believe it. There’s been global climate change every year since I’ve been growing up: warm, cold, warm, cold.”

After O’Donnell took advantage of this coalition of the crackpots to win the primary, she proceeded to make an epic fool of herself (remember the “I’m not a witch” ad?), and ended up losing the general election to Democratic opponent Chris Coons in a blowout.

The right-wing rejection of Castle was a precursor to what happened to Jon Huntsman in 2011, and the right-wing embrace of O’Donnell was a precursor to the Trump phenomenon. Five years after that perverse primary, things aren’t getting better. They’re getting much worse. Does this mean our political system is cursed?

NEXT: Climate change and the political climate.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.