The Upshot

Who is tea party sensation Christine O’Donnell?

The Upshot

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Christine O'Donnell takes the podium after clinching the Delaware Republican nomination.

ChristineO'Donnell

Christine O'Donnell shocked the GOP establishment with Tuesday night's upset primary win over Rep. Mike Castle, whom early polls had pegged as the odds-on favorite to capture the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden. And as the insurgent tea party nominee gains a greater national profile, she'll also be drawing greater scrutiny -- particularly for her offbeat political biography and her strongly held conservative cultural values.

While O'Donnell is an establishment outsider, she's no stranger to statewide political campaigning. This marks her third run for a U.S. Senate seat. She ran initially in 2006, seeking the GOP nomination to challenge Democratic incumbent Thomas R. Carper. She finished third in that GOP primary, but refused to give up her bid, mounting a failed write-in campaign against Carper in the November general election. In 2008, she got the GOP nod (having run unopposed), but lost badly in November to the longtime incumbent.

[Related: Will surprise tea party victory drastically change the GOP?]

Now O'Donnell's victory is one of the strongest signs of how drastically Republican politics are in upheaval this election cycle. And her 2010 general election campaign will serve as a litmus test for how far the tea party can carry an unconventional candidate toward a full rejection of politics-as-usual in the November balloting.

She's been a Delaware resident since 2003, moving to Wilmington to work for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative think tank and book publisher. That experience seems to have cemented O'Donnell's reputation as a firebrand in conservative circles: She ended up suing that (now-former) employer for $6.9 million, alleging gender discrimination. In 2008, she dropped the suit, citing the burden of legal fees.

More recently, O'Donnell has worked as a marketing and media consultant. She counts her work for Mel Gibson's controversial 2003 film "Passion of the Christ" as one of best-known campaigns.

Like Gibson, O'Donnell was raised as a Catholic -- though she's variously indicated that she now attends Catholic and Protestant services. Before attaining renown as an office-seeker, she'd been best known for aggressively promoting conservative sexual morality, particularly for young women. O'Donnell began her public quest to promote chastity shortly after completing her education at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. (O'Donnell attended FDU's cap-and-gown ceremony in 1993, but only received her diploma this month -- her staff told news outlets that she just recently met a final course requirement, though O'Donnell had previously stated her diploma was withheld due to outstanding tuition debt.)

As she explained to the Wilmington News Journal in 2004, she did "things she regrets" in college, such as drinking to excess and becoming somewhat sexually promiscuous. Those regrets spurred her to promote chaste values, and to seek out a national forum to advance related policy aims such as abstinence education.

After college, O'Donnell moved to Washington, D.C., first working for an anti-pornography group, then taking jobs with the Republican National Committee and with Concerned Women for America, an anti-feminist group. She also founded a nonprofit group called the Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth, to promote "righteous" values and sexual morality. It was in connection with her work for the group that O'Donnell was featured in a 1996 MTV documentary, "Sex in the '90s," to tout abstinence and speak out against masturbation. That clip of the young O'Donnell has already attracted a large viral audience online, after the liberal MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow aired it on her show Tuesday night.

Critics have seized on some past statements and actions O'Donnell has made to cast her as too conservative to win in November. Other O'Donnell detractors paint her as unstable, dishonest or radical. The Weekly Standard reported that O'Donnell misrepresented her education credentials in her gender discrimination suit. Reports indicate that O'Donnell did not win two of three counties in her 2008 race, and she backtracked her comments to that effect. Her recent accusation that her opponents are "hiding in the bushes" at her home raised eyebrows -- she says she's never reported those incidents. And in addition to her MTV clip, she's also now being dogged by footage of a 1998 appearance on Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" in which she insisted that lying is always wrong, even for European families harboring Jews in their home during World War II as Nazis came to their door.

[Related: See O'Donnell, conservatives fire back at Rove]

The state Republican Party firmly backed Castle in the race, and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jon Cornyn has raised his doubts that O'Donnell can win against Democratic nominee Chris Coons this fall -- even though his committee has since pledged to kick in financial support for her general election campaign. A longstanding battle between O'Donnell supporters and former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove has also highlighting emerging rifts between the Republican establishment figures and the tea party insurgency.

As O'Donnell noted in her victory speech Tuesday night, she's well aware of Washington's opinion of her campaign. But this time, she notes, she's already proved Washington wrong.

"Don't ever underestimate the power of we the people," O'Donnell said. "We the people will have our voice heard in Washington, D.C., once again."

[Related: See a look at the tea party movement]

(Photo: AP/Rob Carr)

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