Delaware Grapevine by Celia Cohen: Election 2012

Election 2012: Will Delaware continue to recycle?

Delaware voters might be the world’s best recyclers. They keep finding new uses for the politicians they have, instead of throwing them out.

Look at Tom Carper, the Democratic senator up for a new term this year. The voters first elected him to be the state treasurer, then recycled him as the state’s lone congressman and the governor, until they finally sent him back to Washington in his latest incarnation.

This is more creative than merely reconstituting tires into rubberized asphalt.

- Advertisement -

Carper has a lot of company, like all of the others at the top of the Democratic ticket for the 2012 election. John Carney, the congressman, is a recycled lieutenant governor. Jack Markell, the governor, is a reused state treasurer, and Matt Denn, the lieutenant governor, is what happens when the electorate goes green with an insurance commissioner.

No wonder the Democrats are much more confident going into this campaign season than the Republicans are. What looks like environmentally friendly recycling to one party looks like a vicious cycle to the other.

It is like the Republicans have become trapped in a Catch-22 of politics. Anyone who has not already been elected to statewide office cannot get elected to statewide office.

Still, there is something in state politics even more powerful than recycling. It is the dreaded expiration date.

It got Bill Roth, the Republican senator. It got Mike Castle, the Republican congressman and governor, before he could get to the Senate. It even has a name. It is the “John Williams Rule.”

- Partner Content -

John Williams was a famous Republican senator, a Sussex County chicken feed dealer who fought government corruption and became known as the “Conscience of the Senate.” He made up a rule that politicians should not run for a new term if it meant staying in office beyond their 70th birthday. He personally exited in 1970, after four terms, when he was 66.

The voters loosely follow the rule, whether or not they are actually aware that they do, like it’s something in their DNA. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, voters are gonna say good-bye.

The voters were devoted to Bill Roth, a national figure who fathered the Roth-Kemp tax cut under Ronald Reagan and the Roth IRA, and they stuck with him for one term beyond his 70th birthday but not for two. They jilted him for Carper in 2000.

Same with Castle. He was re-elected as congressman when he was 69, but out he went when he tried to run for the Senate at 71, even if the instrument of his defeat had to be Christine O’Donnell. The political gods work in mysterious ways.

In this election, Carper is bumping up against the rule. He turned 65 in January, so a fresh six-year term would put him over the limit. It is preposterous to think Carper would not get the same pass that Roth and Castle got, one more for the road, but he ought to think long and hard about 2018. Recycling only goes so far.

- Advertisement -

Recycling, expiration dates—they are part of the undercurrents flowing through state politics. There are plenty of others, too, and they will have their way in the upcoming campaigns.

U.S. Senate: Carper is trying to do what no Delawarean has done before. He is trying to win his 13th statewide race. He is currently tied with Castle at 12. There is nothing like injecting a little triskaidekaphobia (the fear of 13) into politics. Not that Carper is superstitious, but every Election Day when he’s on the ballot, he has breakfast at Arner’s Restaurant in New Castle.

The Republicans are running Kevin Wade, a rookie candidate who owns an engineering firm based in Christiana. Alex Pires, an independent, is also in the race. The biggest impression Wade has made in party circles is the opening line in his appearances, “My name is Kevin Wade. It’s a short name and easy to remember.”

“Tom Carper” is also a short name and easy to remember. “Kevin Wade” is a lot easier to forget.

U.S. House of Representatives: The Democratic and Republican candidates are mirror images of each other. John Carney has been beaten, but he has never lost to a Republican on Election Day. Tom Kovach has won office twice, but he has never beaten a Democrat on Election Day. Strange but true.

Carney has been elected three times, twice as lieutenant governor and once as congressman, but he may be best remembered for the wrenching race he lost to Jack Markell for the nomination for governor. That was on Primary Day in 2008 against a fellow Democrat, though, not on Election Day.

Kovach got himself elected twice, once as a state representative and once as the New Castle County Council president, his current post, but in both cases, he won a special election. The only time he was on the ballot on Election Day, he was running for re-election to the legislature, and he lost.

If Carney beats Kovach on Election Day, as expected, they both keep their streaks alive.

Governor: History has chosen sides in this one, and it is with Jack Markell. He is riding the streak of the last four governors, all of whom won a second term, namely Pete du Pont and Mike Castle for the Republicans and Tom Carper and Ruth Ann Minner for the Democrats. If even Minner can do it…

Furthermore, nobody in the past 40 years has been elected governor without previously running and winning statewide. That would not be Jeff Cragg, the Republican candidate, who is a former insurance executive with a Mailboxes Etc. store in Brandywine Hundred. Cragg’s highest political office was co-chair of the New Castle County Republicans.

Lieutenant Governor: When little children are asked what they want to be when they grow up, not one of them says, “I want to be the lieutenant governor.”

Lieutenant governors are the ultimate in political recycling. They devoutly want to be something else. Among the lieutenant governors of more recent vintage, Castle was spun into a governor and congressman, Minner into a governor and Carney into a congressman.

In the meantime, Matt Denn, like Minner and Carney before him, is stuck running for a second term. The Republican candidate is Sher Valenzuela, who co-owns an upholstery business with her husband in Milford.

Lieutenant governors do not just inquire about the governor’s health. They also inquire about the governor’s poll numbers.

Although Delaware votes separately for its governor and lieutenant governor, it does not come out that way. The last time the state elected a governor and lieutenant governor from different parties was almost 30 years ago.

As goes Markell, so goes Denn.

Say it ain’t so, Joe. Not to forget, there is also the presidential race that will include Joe Biden, recycled from senator into the Democratic vice president. It has been 40 years since his first campaign for senator, and this election conceivably could be the last time Biden’s name appears on the Delaware ballot.

Not you, Beau.

Our Best of Delaware Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!

Holiday flash sale ... subscribe and save 50%

Limited time offer. New subscribers only.