Two similar Tea Party candidates from Democratic-leaning Northeastern states, New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino and Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, are pursuing distinctly different campaign strategies.
Both candidates share a lot of similarities. They both won their primaries as underdogs; favored to lose to establishment Republican favorites, they went on to win in spite of the predictions of the pundit class. In a year that was not a Republican “wave” election, neither candidate would be particularly viable in a liberal, Northeastern state. Both candidates are certainly viable, but they have adopted divergent strategies for dealing with the day-to-day ups and downs of the campaign. For the moment, it appears that Carl Paladino has captured the momentum of the moment, while O’Donnell has abdicated the enthusiasm that came with her primary election win.
Paladino has several traditional vulnerabilities that are certainly exploitable. However, it is hard not to see how his offense-dominant strategy against this opponent, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), has circumvented those vulnerabilities. Paladino was attacked early for his being linked to email he forwarded that showcased racist and sexually explicit jokes. He has a 10-year-old child that was born to a woman he had an affair with – Paladino is married with children. He is firmly anti-abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, and supports maintaining the traditional definition of marriage. These and other positions, in a year that was not 2010, would certainly be pursued viciously. He should be 20 points behind in New York. Instead, the last two polls of likely voters put Paladino within ten points of Cuomo (who does not break 50 percent of voter support in either poll).
Even Cuomo is perplexed by this situation: "We have all this stuff [on Paladino] and we're on the defensive,” he complained to a campaign insider. Paladino has embraced his idiosyncrasies and maintained a steady assault on the famously hot-tempered New York Attorney General. Former New York Governor and soon-to-be CNN host, Eliot Spitzer, suggests that the major players in the state know Cuomo all too well, and he is not particularly well liked. “When his father was governor, he [Andrew] was the tough guy. He had brass knuckles and played hardball. He has a lot of enemies out there. Nobody's been willing to stand up to him.” Except, that is, for Carl Paladino.
Cuomo released an ad last week attacking Paladino for accepting government subsidies and calling him a “welfare king.” Paladino has responded by questioning Cuomo’s “manhood” as a reason for his delay in accepting and scheduling debates. Cuomo responded by asking if he could call Paladino an “a**hole.”
New York State residents are not afraid of language, and this is not a race where the evening news will find many “man-on-the-street” interviews with average citizens clamoring for civility. People are angry, and both candidates are tapping into that anger to their advantage. Cuomo, aware of his reputation, has opted to temper the dialogue. When recently asked to offer a critique of Paladino, Cuomo responded “No. I don’t think it’s my place to critique him.” Cuomo has adopted a clearly defensive stand. He has let his opponent set the tone of the campaign and is now responding to it. That is a good place for Paladino to be.
Compare that strategy to the oft-written campaign of the GOP Senate candidate from Delaware, Christine O’Donnell.
O’Donnell has almost certainly received more scrutiny than her opponent, Democratic Senate candidate Chris Coons. That scrutiny has revealed some statements from her past that in any non-wave year would invalidate her candidacy in a state like Delaware. She has called condoms “anti-human,” questioned the legitimacy of evolution by inquiring “why aren’t monkeys still evolving into humans,” and said that homosexuals have an “identity problem.”
She is not completely out of the race. In head-to-head polls against Coons she trails by a not insurmountable 15 or16 points. However, instead of attacking her opponent, she spent most of her time attacking the media for its scrutiny, playing defense and parrying attacks rather than driving the conversation forward.
Politico reported that O’Donnell received “the Sarah Palin treatment” over the weekend from Saturday Night Live, but that is where comparisons to the unsinkable Sarah Palin end. O’Donnell has thus far been unable to talk over the heads of the media, as Palin does effectively, to her prospective constituency. She has played a defensive role and not been able to tap into the anger and resentment at government like Paladino. O’Donnell has allowed this campaign to become a referendum on her and her past – if that remains the case she will likely lose.
The best news for O’Donnell comes out of the camp of her former primary opponent, Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE). Castle is still reportedly contemplating a write in bid, as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) after her primary loss. Rasmussen released a poll taken on Sunday which showed that Castle’s bid would siphon votes away from Coons rather than O’Donnell. In that poll she trails Coons by only 9 points. Given the resentment towards O’Donnell that would fuel a Castle write in candidacy, it is hard to imagine a scenario where Castle reenters the race with the knowledge that it would help O’Donnell win the Senate seat that was once a lock for him.
In a tale of two Tea Party candidates, one is clearly adopting a more aggressive strategy and it is paying off. These are different candidates with different strategies in different states, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for any race. However, a quick study reveals that one candidate is driving events while the other is responding to them. Which position would you rather be in?
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org