Let the Family Feuds Begin!

Will the Republicans elect someone new into statewide office?

Delaware will not be seeing anything in this election year like Christine O’Donnell running against Mike Castle in a Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, or like Jack Markell and John Carney essentially settling the governor’s race in a Democratic primary.

Races like those are a reminder of the reason they are called “primary.” It makes the general election look sort of secondary.

But that’s what happens as state politics hardens into a one-party system, with the Democrats dominating.

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Deciding elections in November seems so 20th century, like telephone land lines and Democrats supporting don’t-ask-don’t-tell.

Tom Carper and Bill Roth closed it out resolutely. Carper was a two-term Democratic governor and Roth was a five-term Republican senator when Carper took out Roth in the Senate race in 2000.

The campaign was a showdown for the ages. Roth never even saw defeat coming.

Roth even had a blow-out victory party planned for the Gold Ballroom at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, complete with an ice sculpture of a Saint Bernard, his trusty political mascot. The only thing that melted away faster than the ice was the crowd when it found out Roth had lost.

Roth’s loss was the undeniable evidence that the Republicans here were in decline.

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Though the party had once been formidable, or at the very least competitive, voters became comfortable with the peace and prosperity of the 1990s under the Democrats, with Bill Clinton as president and Carper as governor, and less comfortable with the Republicans as they tacked to the right.

Plus, as Jim Soles, the late political scientist at the University of Delaware, pointed out, the DuPont Co. was also retrenching in the 1990s and coincidentally reducing a broad base of pro-business, civic-minded voters, campaign volunteers and candidates that the Republican Party relied on.

There was a reason Ralph Nader, the consumer crusader, once put out a book called “The Company State.” Better politics through chemistry, as it were.

As devastating as it was for the Republicans when Roth lost, they still had farther to fall. As surely as friends do not let friends drive drunk, the Republicans did not let Democrats beat Republicans. Instead, they let Republicans beat Republicans.

Ten years after Roth, the Republicans had that rancorous primary in 2010 between Castle and O’Donnell. It exposed a split between the regulars and tea partiers so self-destructive, the party has not been able to recover since. It also left no doubt that Delaware politics had entered the age of the primary in earnest.

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Primary Day 2014 is about three months away, on Tuesday, Sept. 9. This one includes a pivotal race that is giving the Democrats a lot of political angst and has the Republicans crossing their fingers that it might even restore a statewide office to them. 

The commotion is swirling around Chip Flowers, the first-term Democratic treasurer who is up for re-election.

Flowers is a self-made candidate. He materialized four years ago, then made it into statewide office in two steps. He won a Democratic primary against Velda Jones-Potter, the treasurer appointed by Markell to replace himself after he was elected governor in 2008. That put Flowers in position in the general election to catch just enough of the tailwind from the anti-Republican anger over Christine O’Donnell to get 51 percent of the vote.

Flowers made Delaware history as the first African-American candidate elected statewide. He has since found himself at odds with the governor and other leading Democratic officeholders over the way he has run the treasurer’s office.

Sean Barney is challenging Flowers in a Democratic primary. Though Barney has worked as a gubernatorial aide for Markell and a senatorial aide for Carper, he is better known for what he did on his own.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Barney had to evacuate in the rush from Capitol Hill as a member of Carper’s staff, he enlisted in the Marines. He took a bullet in the neck while on patrol in Iraq. This from someone who went to Swarthmore College, conscientiously objecting to war for 150 years.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have seen their opportunity and taken it. Ken Simpler Jr., a money manager and chief financial officer, has filed for treasurer. 

Primaries are notoriously finicky to predict, because they are essentially family feuds, and turnout is conspicuously iffy. If the Republicans can pull it off, it would be the first time in 20 years they elected someone new to statewide office.

Through the years, the importance of primaries has ebbed and flowed. They were elemental in the 1970s, when they were first instituted as a way for the parties to choose their statewide nominees, instead of deciding on them at conventions.

Back in those days, the Democrats had a knock-down-drag-out primary for congressman in 1970 between John Daniello—yes, the same John Daniello who is the Democratic state chair today—and Sam Shipley. The Republicans had one for governor in 1972 between Russ Peterson, who was the governor, and Dave Buckson.

Those primaries were killers. Daniello won, but the Republicans beat him with Pete du Pont, running in his first statewide race for congressman. It was the same story for Peterson, whose reprieve in the primary lasted only until the Democrats won the governorship with Sherman Tribbitt.

For decade upon decade thereafter, Democrats remembered with bitter resentment who was with Daniello and who was with Shipley, and it was ditto for the Republicans with Peterson and Buckson.

Nowadays the animosity apparently depends on the party. The Democrats patched it up after Markell-Carney and made Carney a congressman two years later, but after O’Donnell-Castle, the recriminations are still raging for the Republicans.  

 

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