Joe Biden’s Home-State Politics Get a Rare Shake-Up

Delaware’s lone congressman, John Carney, is running for governor, creating an opportunity for Democrats looking to move up the totem pole.

WILMINGTON, DE - NOVEMBER 02: U.S. Senator-elect Chris Coons (D-DE) (R) stands with Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) (C) and Representative-elect John Carney (D-DE) during his victory party on November 2, 2010 in Wilmington, Delaware. Chris Coons beat out Republican challenger Christine O'Donnell to win Vice President Joe Biden's old Senate seat.
Mark Wilson AFP/Getty
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
Sept. 17, 2015, 8 p.m.

Delaware Rep. John Car­ney is a clear fa­vor­ite to be­come his state’s next gov­ernor. What hap­pens to the seat the Demo­crat­ic con­gress­man is leav­ing be­hind is less sure.

With Car­ney an­noun­cing his run for gov­ernor Wed­nes­day, Delaware Demo­crats are ex­pect­ing a com­pet­it­ive and po­ten­tially crowded primary for his at-large House seat. In a lib­er­al-lean­ing state with just three fed­er­al po­s­i­tions, the va­cancy has set in mo­tion a rare op­por­tun­ity for loc­al politi­cians look­ing to move up. Already, one day after Car­ney’s an­nounce­ment, Demo­crat­ic state Sen. Bry­an Town­send has said he will run for Con­gress.

“If you’re an up-and-com­ing elec­ted of­fi­cial or any­one who’s in­ter­ested in elec­ted of­fice at the highest levels in Delaware, the golden ring doesn’t come around very of­ten,” said Ted Kauf­man, Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden’s long­time ad­viser and his ap­poin­ted suc­cessor in the Sen­ate. “When there is an open­ing, a num­ber of people come for­ward.”

In the case of Car­ney’s seat, the op­por­tun­ity for Delaware Demo­crats came through a tra­gic turn. The third-term con­gress­man was ex­pec­ted to re­main in the House un­til Beau Biden, Biden’s son and the state’s former at­tor­ney gen­er­al, died from brain can­cer earli­er this year. Beau Biden had been ex­pec­ted to run for gov­ernor him­self.

Even be­fore Car­ney said he was run­ning for gov­ernor, Town­send and state Rep. Bry­on Short made known their in­terest in his seat. Earli­er this month, Town­send moved to hire a fun­drais­ing staff for a po­ten­tial cam­paign.

“I’ve heard pretty clearly about the two can­did­ates, mainly be­cause these seats don’t come up very of­ten,” Delaware Gov. Jack Mar­kell told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “They are both cred­ible,” but, he ad­ded, “it wouldn’t sur­prise me if oth­ers got in.” Mar­kell, who is term-lim­ited, is not in­ter­ested in the con­gres­sion­al seat and said he hasn’t de­cided if he’ll en­dorse in the race.

Short said he’s “mov­ing to­wards” a bid, while an­oth­er po­ten­tial can­did­ate, former Demo­crat­ic state Rep. Den­nis Wil­li­ams, said he’s also ser­i­ously eye­ing a run. Marla Blunt Carter, a state dir­ect­or for Pres­id­ent Obama in 2008, and her sis­ter, Lisa Blunt Rochester, the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an wo­man to be­come Delaware’s sec­ret­ary of labor, may also launch cam­paigns. (Marla Blunt Carter said the two would not run against each oth­er and would de­cide on the race early next year.) And 2014 state treas­urer can­did­ate Sean Barney, an Ir­aq War vet­er­an and former Mar­kell policy dir­ect­or, is lean­ing to­ward a run, a source close to the cam­paign said.

Already, talk of po­ten­tial le­gis­lat­ive va­can­cies after the con­gres­sion­al elec­tion is trick­ling fur­ther down to the loc­al level. Short, who would not seek reelec­tion in his state House dis­trict if he runs for Con­gress, said a couple of loc­al Demo­crat­ic com­mit­tee-mem­bers have already ex­pressed in­terest in his po­s­i­tion.

“People are pay­ing at­ten­tion, and they know I’m not go­ing to run for both seats at the same time,” Short said.

The down-bal­lot scramble is rare in a state where high-rank­ing politi­cians have shuffled between dif­fer­ent fed­er­al po­s­i­tions for years, crowding out pro­mo­tions for lower-level of­fice­hold­ers.

Re­pub­lic­an Mike Castle served as gov­ernor for two terms and then spent nine terms in the House un­til he lost a messy GOP primary for Sen­ate in 2010. Be­fore serving in the Sen­ate, Sen. Tom Carp­er rep­res­en­ted Delaware in the House for 10 years and was gov­ernor for two terms. And Joe Biden, whose fam­ily re­mains deeply re­spec­ted in the state, held one of Delaware’s Sen­ate seats for 36 years.

“Once you get in­to one of the big po­s­i­tions, you’re in a power po­s­i­tion in our state,” said Bri­an McGlinchey, a Delaware-based Demo­crat­ic strategist. “The [House] seat has a lot of prom­in­ence.”

But the chal­lenge to get there can be steep for can­did­ates, es­pe­cially state le­gis­lat­ors. Delaware’s le­gis­lat­ive dis­tricts are a small per­cent­age of the state pop­u­la­tion-wise, leav­ing those law­makers only known to a small size of the elect­or­ate.

“No state le­gis­lat­or has a par­tic­u­larly large base when it comes to run­ning statewide,” said J.J. Bal­aban, a Demo­crat­ic me­dia strategist who’s worked on cam­paigns for Mar­kell, Carp­er and Demo­crat­ic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware. “That means the field is just very open.”

Wil­li­ams, the former state rep­res­ent­at­ive, un­suc­cess­fully chal­lenged Castle for the House seat in 1996 and 1998, when Demo­crats in the state lacked the dom­in­ant re­gis­tra­tion num­bers they boast today.

There is one Re­pub­lic­an run­ning in the race so far, former Wyom­ing may­or Hans Reigle. But even Re­pub­lic­ans con­cede that the elec­tion will be a tough climb.

“Win­ning as a Re­pub­lic­an statewide is an ex­tremely dif­fi­cult lift,” said Tom Ross, a former chair of the Delaware Re­pub­lic­an Party. “Any­body that’s fa­mil­i­ar with the re­gis­tra­tion here in Delaware would of course give a big ad­vant­age to who­ever the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee is.”

Who that nom­in­ee will be, though, is im­possible to pre­dict.

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