DOVER, Del. – She has used campaign contributions to help pay the rent, taken more than 20 years to get her bachelor's degree and equated masturbation with adultery. And she just stunned the GOP establishment by beating a nine-term congressman and two-term governor in Delaware's U.S. Senate primary election.
Now Republicans across the country and even many Delaware residents want to know: Who is Christine O'Donnell?
"I'm an average, hardworking citizen," the 41-year-old said Wednesday.
The conservative activist's win Tuesday highlights the power of the tea party movement that championed her, the vulnerability of longtime officeholders and a tricky calculus for Republicans hoping to gain congressional majorities in November. Much of the cheering after her victory over Rep. Mike Castle came from Democrats who consider O'Donnell a weaker opponent who will alienate moderate Republicans.
Former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, who is now trying to fashion GOP majorities in Congress, said much the same thing on Fox News: "This is not a race we're going to be able to win."
Castle said through a spokeswoman he does not intend to support O'Donnell. But other Republicans including Sarah Palin and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, rushed to O'Donnell's defense, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sent $5,000 from his political action committee for her campaign.
Those who think she isn't electable should "buck up," Palin, who had endorsed O'Donnell, told Fox News.
O'Donnell accused critics within her party of "Republican cannibalism."
"We have to rise above this nastiness and unify for the greater good, because there's a lot of work to be done and there are a lot of people who want to get involved if the Republican Party would," O'Donnell said in an interview with The Associated Press.
For many Delaware residents O'Donnell remains a mystery, even though more than 30,000 of them voted for her Tuesday.
"I've seen the name, but I haven't heard much about her," Annette Carney, a Cheswold resident in her 50s who works in child care, said Wednesday.
"I'm surprised that she won against Castle," added Carney, who did not vote in Tuesday's primary. "He's been around forever."
O'Donnell first stepped into the political spotlight in the mid-1990s as a conservative activist and cable TV commentator, focusing on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and premarital sex. According to Catholic Outreach, for which she once served as a spokeswoman, O'Donnell was described in one magazine as blending "the King James Bible with Cosmopolitan."
She took opposition to premarital sex a step further than usual in a 1996 video aired on MTV that is getting renewed attention. "The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery, so you can't masturbate without lust," she explained.
O'Donnell's 2006 resume showed that she worked about 18 months as a marketing coordinator for the Republican National Committee, beginning in December 1993, before spending a year as a press secretary for Concerned Women for America, a group that says it works to "bring biblical principles into all levels of public policy."
O'Donnell founded and led a group called the Saviors Alliance for Lifting the Truth before taking a job in 2003 with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative think tank based in Wilmington. O'Donnell filed, and later dropped, a sexual discrimination lawsuit against ISI after she was fired less than a year into the job.
This is O'Donnell's third Senate campaign in four years. She finished third in a three-way primary race in 2006 and got 35 percent of the vote against then-Sen. Joe Biden in 2008 after winning the GOP nomination at the state party convention. This year, she's running for the seat Biden left to become vice president.
She has not had a steady job in years, and former campaign staffers have suggested she has lived off campaign contributions. Finance reports show that political contributions have helped pay her rent because her townhouse has served as her campaign office.
O'Donnell denies misspending, saying she has "sold just about every asset I have" and that "I cashed it all out, but I have savings."
She added that her financial struggles could actually be an advantage in connecting with voters. "I can relate to what they're doing in terms of wondering where your next paycheck is coming from," she said.
Castle and the state GOP accused O'Donnell of lying about her education and leaving a trail of unpaid bills that included unsettled campaign debts, tax liens and a default on her mortgage.
After being accused of lying about her college degree, which she had claimed she received in 1993, O'Donnell explained that her diploma was withheld because of outstanding education bills. She finally received her degree this month.
O'Donnell, who is single, believes her views on social issues dovetail with her philosophy as a Senate candidate opposed to big government.
"As I was in Washington, D.C., advocating for the social issues, I realized that they're all connected, that your approach to protecting the human dignity and protecting the individual definitely reflects in your fiscal policy, and that's why I'm a fiscal conservative," O'Donnell explained Wednesday.
"I believe that every individual has a unique, unrepeatable preciousness, and that our fiscal policy should be one that encourages and empowers the individual creativity," added O'Donnell.
O'Donnell's Democratic opponent in November election, New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, hopes to cast her as too conservative for Delaware, where Democratic voters far outnumber Republicans.
"As best as I can tell, much of Ms. O'Donnell's public life has been dedicated to promoting a very narrow social agenda," Coons said.
O'Donnell says her career has been "pretty much as an advocate, taking on nonprofit clients and nonprofit causes for nearly 20 years," O'Donnell said. "I think that's exactly what prepares me for the U.S. Senate, to be an advocate for folks here in Delaware who have been shut out of the political process."
Associated Press Writer Sarah Brumfield contributed to this story.