State Politics in the Time Before Biden

Here’s how we got to where we are now.

No, Joe Biden was not standing by as the backup to Caesar Rodney for the famous ride to Philadelphia. Still, to generations of Delawareans— the ones who hear “moonwalk” and think “Michael Jackson,” not “Neil Armstrong”— it seems there was never a time in state politics without the vice president. Politics is a lot like science. It builds on itself. There is the same sort of “butterfly effect,” namely, a Lepidoptera flutter in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas, or a 29-year-old underage candidate running for the U.S. Senate can reorder Delaware politics and even land in the innermost of sanctums during the raid to take out bin Laden. Politics moves in mysterious ways. Here are some of the main ones to explain how Delaware politics got to now. More than a Senate race. Any Delawareans who do not know the story about the way Joe Biden got to the Senate are probably so new, they think Wyoming is a state and Newark is in New Jersey. How Biden got the nomination in 1972 because no other Democrat wanted it. How he came out of nowhere—all right, it was the New Castle County Council. How he won by a hairsbreadth of 3,000 votes to unseat Caleb Boggs, a beloved Republican who was a congressman, governor or senator from the election of 1946 after he fought in World War II, which helped to elect him, until the morass of Vietnam, which helped to defeat him. Biden’s election did not just catapult him into the Senate. It launched the Delaware Democratic Party into what it is today.

Before Biden, the party was the province of conservative Democrats and moneyed Democrats. It had Charles Terry, the governor who kept the National Guard in Wilmington after the 1968 riots until it became the longest military occupation in the country since the Civil War. It had Bill Potter, a formidable party official who was an influential lawyer and married a du Pont. Biden was the turning point. He was a different kind of Democrat, appealing to a rising coalition of suburbanites, blue-collar workers and progressives. It was how the Democrats got to now with Tom Carper and Chris Coons in the Senate, Jack Markell as governor and John Carney in the House of Representatives. Pete du Pont and the Watergate Class. The state’s (mostly) civil politics, more consensus than conflict, does not follow an unbroken line back to the collegiality between George Read, the famous Federalist, and John Dickinson, the distinguished Democrat. State politics could get downright nasty. It was so bad in early 1977 that the Democratic legislature commandeered control of the budget for Woodburn, the governor’s house in Dover, just days before Pete du Pont was inaugurated as the Republican governor, and would not even let Elise du Pont, the first lady, repaint. The Democrats and du Pont were at war. The legislature passed a budget. The governor vetoed it. The Democrats overrode it, and on the day they did it, a Democratic state representative giving the daily prayer offered, “May the yeas and nays be loud and clear, and one final request, Father, may the nays be forgiven.”

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The budgetary brinksmanship shook both sides. They had a decision to make. Together they could destroy the state or save it. This was too small of a state to stay toxic. Besides, there was a new element among the legislators. It was the Watergate Babies, the Class of 1974 elected two years before du Pont. They were mostly Democrats, but not all, and they had gone into politics to change it. The governor reached out to the Watergate Class, and it reached back. They set up a “Rainy Day Fund” to cover emergencies. They cut taxes. They enacted landmark banking legislation. They rebuilt the economy. They made the state better than they found it. They made consensus politics a way of life, sometimes more and sometimes less, but nevertheless the standard that got Delaware to now. Three strikes and out. There were three times it looked like Mike Castle might be the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate. It would have been the perfect staircase of a political career in which Castle already had ascended from state representative to state senator to lieutenant governor to governor to U.S. representative. Castle was never expected to spend much time as a congressman when he was elected in 1992. It was widely assumed Bill Roth, the Republican senator since the 1970 election, would retire in 1994 and Castle would follow him in a seamless transition for the Republicans. Roth did not retire. Castle gave serious thought to taking him on in a primary.

As a matter of fact, he came so close that with two sets of papers, one for the House and one for the Senate. The aide had instructions to file for the Senate only if he got the word, and it never came. Roth won. Castle won. Roth’s new term was up in 2000, and surely he would give way to Castle then? Instead, Roth ran again, but he was 79 years old, and it was one race too many. He lost to Tom Carper, who was finishing up two terms as the Democratic governor. With Biden and Carper in the Senate, it looked like Castle was shut out, until political miracle of miracles, Barack Obama came calling and Biden was the vice president. If ever anyone was supposed to be a lock to win a Senate race, it was Castle when Biden’s old seat was up in 2010. Then along came Christine “I’m Not a Witch” O’Donnell and the Tea Party, and that was that. Castle would be the best senator Delaware never had, but it was more than a personal loss. The state Republicans were already in a long, slow losing streak, dating back to the 1990s, but this turned it into a collapse. The two-party system was in shreds. Had Castle been at the top of the Republican ticket, running for senator in either 2000 or 2010, his coattails probably could have saved the party. Instead, the Republicans were left with only a single statewide office for auditor and virtual irrelevancy. They stayed that way for four years, until they elected Ken Simpler as treasurer in 2014 in what might or might not be an inkling of a comeback. It is how the Delaware Republicans got to now, but what are the chances it can get them to there?

Illustration By Tom Labaff

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