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Tea party favorite O'Donnell wins in Delaware

WASHINGTON -- Virtually unknown a month ago, Christine O'Donnell rode a surge of support from tea party activists to victory in the Delaware Republican Senate primary Tuesday night in an upset as stunning as any other in a season of recession and political upheaval. A second insurgent led for the GOP nomination in New Hampshire.

O'Donnell defeated Rep. Mike Castle, a fixture in Delaware politics for a generation who campaigned with the strong backing of party officials in his state and in Washington.

Despite her win, O'Donnell will enter the fall campaign as an underdog to Chris Coons, a county executive who was unopposed for the Democratic nomination. Republican party officials said in advance they would not come to her aid if she won the primary, and the state party chairman, Tom Ross, said recently she ''could not be elected dogcatcher.''

In New Hampshire, lawyer Ovide Lamontagne led former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, 48 percent to 34 percent, with votes counted from 12 percent of the precincts.

A former chairman of the state Board of Education, he campaigned with the support of tea party activists, while Ayotte had a coalition of establishment Republicans, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and other conservatives.

Democratic New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch rolled to renomination for a fourth term, and he will face John Stephen, a former state health commissioner who won the GOP line on the ballot easily.

In New York, 40-year veteran Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel faced the voters for the first time since the House ethics committee accused him of 13 violations, most of them relating to his personal finances.

In all, five states chose nominees for the Senate, and six more had gubernatorial hopefuls on primary ballots. The winners had scant time to refocus their energies for midterm elections on Nov. 2.

So far this year, seven incumbent members of Congress have tasted defeat, four Republicans and three Democrats. And that does not include a lengthy list of GOP contenders who fell to tea party-supported challengers despite having the backing of party officials eager to maximize their gains in November.

With unemployment high and President Barack Obama's popularity below 50 percent, Republicans said the primaries reflected an enthusiasm that would serve the party well in the fall, when control of Congress will be at stake.

Democrats, however, said the presence of tea party-supported Republicans would prove costly to the GOP on Nov. 2 -- a proposition that remained to be tested in seven weeks' time.

In Delaware, O'Donnell captured the Republican nomination for a Senate seat held for 36 years by Vice President Joe Biden. The race turned took a sharp turn for the negative three weeks ago after the Tea Party Express announced it would come to her aid.

Castle, a former two-term governor and a veteran of nearly two decades in the House, was repeatedly assailed as a liberal, a Republican in name only. He and the party responded by challenging O'Donnell's fitness for public office, and records surfaced showing that the IRS had once slapped a lien against her and that her house had been headed for foreclosure.

In an extraordinary move, the state Republican Party began automated phone calls attacking O'Donnell in the campaign's final hours. The calls featured the voice of a woman who identified herself as Kristin Murray, O'Donnell's campaign manager in her 2008 unsuccessful Senate campaign, accusing the candidate of ''living on campaign donations -- using them for rent and personal expenses, while leaving her workers unpaid and piling up thousands in debt.''

While Republicans brawled, Coons, executive of New Castle County, coasted to the Democratic nomination without opposition. Biden resigned the seat in early 2009, and his successor, Democratic Sen. Ted Kaufman, pledged not to run for a full term.