illustration by tim foley
Once upon a time in Delaware politics—10 years ago—there were immovable objects and irresistible forces that looked like they were on a collision course. Something was going to have to give.
The way it was resolved—sometimes triumphantly, sometimes shockingly, sometimes tragically—brought the politics of this little state to where it is today. As the end of 2015 nears, it is as good a time as any to look back and remember.
The immovable objects had names. They were called Joe Biden, Mike Castle and Tom Carper. Their collective time in statewide office amounted to more than 80 years. In politics, where a career can end with the speed of a new Twitter post, that is about as immovable as it gets for mortals.
Joe Biden was the Democratic senator who had already served in the U.S. Senate longer than any other Delawarean. Mike Castle was the congressman. A past lieutenant governor and governor, he was on his way to winning more statewide races here than any other Republican. Democrat Tom Carper was working on setting the record for the most statewide victories in Delaware history. He had served as treasurer, congressman and governor before being elected to the U.S. Senate. They stood in the way of irresistible forces.
The irresistible forces had names, too. They were called Jack Markell, John Carney, Chris Coons, Matt Denn and Beau Biden. They were kind of political apprentices at the time, but they had aspirations.
All of them were Democrats. Markell was the treasurer. Carney was the lieutenant governor. Coons was the New Castle County executive. Denn was the insurance commissioner. Beau Biden lagged a little bit behind the others, but he was a U.S. senator’s son who was widely assumed to be preparing a run for attorney general.
The irresistible forces had a problem other than the immovable objects: They were five, but there were only four top-tier offices. One governorship. Two Senate seats. One congressional seat.
Five does not go into four. The math could not work out without at least one of them falling by the wayside. Delaware politics was about to become an exercise of Odd Man Out.
It came along fairly quickly in 2008, as Ruth Ann Minner finished her second and final term as the Democratic governor.
Typically, the path of least resistance to election is an open race with no sitting officeholder running for re-election. Not in this case. There was going to be a lot of friction, because Markell and Carney both wanted the Democratic nomination for governor.
The 2008 primary between Markell and Carney was agony for Democrats, like trying to choose which son to love more. Not only that, but primaries were known to cause rifts in the party that could last for a generation—and give aid and comfort to the other party.
Amazingly, what happened was not mutually assured destruction. It became a new model for state politics.
The primary was just about a tossup. Markell won 51 percent to 49 percent and set himself up to be the next governor. Carney became the Odd Man Out.
Carney was gracious in his concession. He did not plot revenge, and Markell did not plot to ruin him. Carney could rise to run again another day.
And he did. It took only until the next election for a comeback. It also took one of the most unexpected twists in Delaware politics—Barack Obama reached down from on high and plucked Joe Biden to run on the 2008 Democratic presidential ticket for vice president.
An immovable object was removed, and it made all the difference.
The 2010 election suddenly had a lot of moving parts. Carney ran for Congress. Castle ran for U.S. Senate. Beau Biden, now the attorney general, was expected to oppose Castle in a run for his father’s old Senate seat, but he decided to stay put.
That meant the Democrats had an opening. Coons could not get into the Senate race fast enough. A campaign did not look promising, not against an immovable object like Castle, but it seemed like Coons could become an Odd Man Out forever if he didn’t get out of his county office.
The election turned out to be the stuff political lore is made of. The Tea Party toppled Castle in a primary, Coons went to the Senate, and Carney went to the House of Representatives.
Two of the immovable objects were gone. Carper remained. Three of the irresistible forces—Markell, Coons and Carney—had landed in three of the top-tier offices. And somehow it all happened without any direct collisions between the immovable objects and the irresistible forces.
But Denn and Beau Biden were still out there. Denn, who had advanced from insurance commissioner to lieutenant governor, was making moves to run for governor in 2016, when Markell had to vacate the office, but Beau Biden big-footed him. Rather than assume the mantle of Odd Man Out, Denn quickly lateraled into the Attorney General’s Office that Beau Biden was giving up.
Beau Biden likely would have become governor. The thousands of Delawareans who waited for hours to file by his flag-draped casket were testament to it. There would be no higher office for him, but instead a higher calling.
Since 2005, state politics has been vastly reordered. Neither Joe Biden nor Castle will run for statewide office again. Neither Carper nor Coons in the Senate are up for election in 2016. Denn is in the middle of a term as attorney general. Carney is running for governor.
Markell has ruled out running for anything in 2016. Is he the new Odd Man Out? Maybe. For him there is always 2018, if Carper decides to leave the Senate. (He will be 71 years old.) Carney has proven it possible to sit out an election.
By 2018, though, there will be a new congressman in the mix, not to mention Ken Simpler, the state treasurer who is definitely looking upwardly mobile.
Simpler is a Republican, and the state electorate has not had much use for Republicans in higher office recently. But who knows? Stranger things have happened.