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Delaware Politics

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If someone had gone all Rip Van Winkle by the banks of the Brandywine about four years ago and was just coming to, maybe because of the effects of a bewitched draft of Dogfish Head brew, there would be all manner of oddities to learn about.

An iPad? Gangnam style? Gray comes in 50 shades?

At least Delaware politics should have gone as predicted. What a relief.

Mike Castle ought to be in the home stretch of an abbreviated term as a Republican senator, on his way to a triumphant political retirement. Beau Biden, the Democratic attorney general, has to be preparing to run for senator in 2014 and take back the seat his father had.

Joe Biden did get re-elected vice president, right? Thank heavens. It means the economy chugged energetically back to life. Barack Obama never could have won a second term otherwise, not unless the Republicans nominated someone who did something incredibly outlandish, like drive to Canada with the family dog riding on the roof of the car.

Poor Chris Coons. No doubt he finished his two terms as New Castle County’s Democratic executive, miserably consumed with sewers and dog licenses while his Yale-trained mind yearned to grapple with foreign policy and the great constitutional issues of the day. Maybe he went back as in-house counsel at W.L. Gore & Associates, the family firm, with designs on running for attorney general next year.

Say what? Chris Coons is a U.S. senator? Christine O’Donnell is the most famous witch in America? What in the name of Rip Van Winkle is going on? It’s like Delaware became its own alternative universe.

The Democrats landed in Fantasyland, where they can whistle while they work and dreams really do come true. Republicans? State politics for the Republicans morphed into an invasion of the body snatchers, their officeholders picked off one by one.

Only in Fantasyland does a political party in a state of this size get a vice president. Only in an invasion of the body snatchers do the Democrats find themselves running out of Republicans to go after.

The Democrats have not had to try to take over the governorship since 1992. Ditto for getting the lieutenant governor, who is elected separately. It has been a nonstop Democratic administration of Gov. CarperMinnerMarkell and Lt. Gov. MinnerCarneyDenn.

The senators went all-Democratic in 2000, as did the congressional delegation in that fateful election of 2010, when it became Tom Carper and Chris Coons in the Senate and John Carney in the House of Representatives.

It had been 40 years since the Delaware delegation was all one party, but guess what? Back then the members were all Republicans.

Not to mention the current congressional contingent has another distinction, as noted in the “Did You Know?” section of Politics in America 2012: “Delaware is the only state represented by lawmakers whose last names begin with the same letter.”

Celia CohenSure, it is silly, but it beats being known as the state with the most governors who have been sent to the slammer. No matter what, the remaining 49 states can defend themselves by declaring, “At least, we’re not Illinois!”

Illinois has had four governors convicted of corruption, including two of them back to back. As the NBC News website saucily once observed, officially Illinois’ state slogan is the “Land of Lincoln,” but unofficially its slogan might as well be the “Land of Greased Palms.”

All told, the Democrats here have the governor and the lieutenant governor, the congressional delegation and the attorney general, the insurance commissioner and the treasurer—every statewide office but the auditor. They also control the General Assembly.

So what do the Republicans have? Openings.

“It’s kind of exciting to have so many opportunities in front of us,” says Sher Valenzuela, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 2012.

Ah, the ravings of a cockeyed optimist. Except maybe it is not so cockeyed. It happens to be the Democrats’ own story.

A political generation ago, the Democrats were the ones who were shut out. The governor was Republican, the congressional delegation was Republican, and the legislature was controlled by the Republicans.

Joe Biden got to run for senator in 1972, when he was nothing but a New Castle County councilman, because the times were bad for the Democrats and nobody else in his party wanted to.

The same went for Tom Carper, who was a virgin candidate when he jumped into the treasurer’s race four years later in 1976, a campaign that sent him on his way into state political lore with a record 13 statewide victories as treasurer, congressman, governor and senator.

“The Republicans owned the state. Nobody wanted to run,” Carper says. “Today the shoe is on the other foot, but politics is a pendulum, and public opinion will swing back to the Republicans.

“We took a bad situation and turned it around,” Carper adds, “but when we start sitting back and resting on our laurels and saying, ‘Oh, look at us, we’re in the majority, we have the whole congressional delegation, the governor, the lieutenant governor, the legislature,’ and we think it will be that way forever, we’ll be on the outside looking in.”

Not that the Democrats look like they will be threatened in 2014. They are expected to field a robust ticket, topped by Chris Coons and John Carney, and followed by the vice president’s son running for re-election as attorney general. Beau Biden was such a formidable presence four years ago that the Republicans did not even bother putting up an opponent.

For now, it is hard for the Republicans to see a path forward, even for themselves.

“A spark is needed, and what that spark is, I don’t know,” Mike Castle says.

It looks like it could take going all Rip Van Winkle to find out.  


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