Delaware’s 2016 speculation all about Biden

By Jonathan Starkey, The News Journal

Delaware’s political community may still be hungover from Tuesday’s elections. But the polls closing on Nov. 4 served only to usher in talk about the 2016 campaign.

The main event in two years: A race to decide on Delaware’s next governor.

Outgoing Attorney General Beau Biden, who said by email in April he would seek the governor’s office, could be the campaign’s headliner.

But for now, the clear 2016 wild card remains uncertainty about his candidacy – uncertainty created by Biden himself.

Biden has shunned the public spotlight since surgery last year to remove a small brain lesion, skipping key events and denying repeated requests to speak with reporters.

He rode in the Return Day parade last week, but quickly left without making the political rounds in Georgetown.

The short-list includes U.S. Rep. John Carney, Attorney General-elect Matt Denn and, in some circles, Tom Gordon, the New Castle County Executive and a staunch ally of the Bidens.

In an interview on Friday, Gordon said unequivocally that Biden is ready to run for governor and dismissed any talk about his own potential candidacy.

“Whoever says he’s not running doesn’t have the facts,” Gordon said. “All these other rumors are not true. People are putting out that he’s sick. He’s not and he’s running. They’re going to get started within six months on the governor’s race and he’s going to be everywhere.”

Biden declined to be interviewed for this story.

Republicans haven’t been left out of the early conversation on 2016.

“I will consider it, I will make a decision quickly,” Lavelle said, calling a gubernatorial campaign an 18-24 month commitment.

That campaign commitment is something that would have to factor into any potential run by Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor who was elected attorney general on Tuesday.

He is leaving the lieutenant governor’s office two years early to become attorney general. Should he pursue a governor’s race, politics would consume much of his first two years as Delaware’s top law enforcement official.

But he did not exactly close the door on a midterm race for governor last week, saying only “I’m planning to serve four years as attorney general.”

Carney’s path to the governor’s office could be even more complicated. The congressman declined to speculate about his political future in a recent interview, saying he anticipated supporting a Biden campaign.

He ran for governor once before, losing a bitter 2008 primary to now-Gov. Jack Markell.

The aftermath of the loss “wasn’t easy,” Carney said in a recent interview.

“I had two years after the 2008 primary that ended up disappointing for me and was able to gain a perspective on what my public service is all about. It’s more about the people I serve, the people of Delaware, either in state government when I was there, or Congress when I’m there now, than it is about me.”

On a potential race in 2016, Carney said, “As far as I know, Beau is still running. Last time I talked to him, he was still committed to doing that. I don’t see any indication that he’s not.”

The Republicans

Republicans have been more transparent about their plans in two years.

Ken Simpler, who won the race for state treasurer on Tuesday and was immediately considered a potential candidate for governor, abruptly ruled out a run.

“Not gonna happen,” said Levin, who considered a GOP campaign for governor in 2008.

Lavelle said Republicans must have discussions sooner than later about how to approach the governor’s race. Republicans will be at their usual deep disadvantage, with 125,000 more Democrats than Republicans registered to vote statewide.

Jeff Cragg, the Republican who challenged Gov. Jack Markell in 2012, lost by more than 40 percentage points.

“We need as a party to talk about it,” Lavelle said. “There’s lot of good candidates. I’m not the only guy who can run for governor. You have to be really thoughtful about it. It’s not a light commitment.”

The 2016 talk comes on the heels of a good year for Republicans and a bad year for Democrats, at least by Delaware standards.

Simpler won the state treasurer’s race by 10 percentage points over Democrat Sean Barney.

Auditor Tom Wagner won re-election for the seventh time despite an anemic fundraising effort.

And Republicans picked up three seats in the General Assembly, chipping away at Democratic dominance in Legislative Hall.

Low turnout

Democrats were doomed by the lowest voter turnout in decades, fueled by frustration with government and a growing distrust of politics.

Only 36 percent of registered Delaware voters cast ballots Nov. 4.

For perspective, Gov. Jack Markell collected nearly 276,000 votes in his 2012 re-election. That’s about 42,000 more votes than were cast by Delawareans of any party in the U.S. Senate election last week.

Only about 14,300 people voted in Wilmington, Delaware’s largest city. The turnout hurt down-ballot Democrats who were counting on a Democratic registration advantage to help propel them to the election wins in the state treasurer and auditor raes.

Voter turnout is always higher in years with a presidential race, and 2016 will likely be no different.

But James Baker, the former Wilmington mayor, said Democrats must give their base voters a reason to come out on Election Day.

“It’s a matter of understanding your base and where your bases are,” Baker said. “If you don’t pay it any mind in terms of really trying to energize it and get it out, you can expect bad results. You’ve got to make people feel part of it, connected. It’s got to be, ‘why is this so important for me to vote?'”

Most Democrats – and Republicans, too, for that matter – agree on one thing: a clear signal of an official campaign from Biden is likely to clear the Democratic field of gubernatorial candidates. “I don’t think you’ll see anybody credible step up and take that challenge on. It’s just too much to take on Beau,” said Rhett Ruggerio, a Dover lobbyist and former national committeeman for the Delaware Democratic Party. “His fundraising abilities are just going to be off the charts.”

Mike Houghton, a Wilmington lawyer and a Democrat, said the Bidens have “overwhelming support from Delaware Democrats.”

Houghton is a close ally of Carney, and served as the campaign finance chair on Carney’s 2008 campaign for governor. He said it’s “political tradition” to make lists of potential candidates for high office, but noted that Biden remains the only Democratic candidate in the field.

“I’m sure Carney is prominent on those sorts of lists,” Houghton said. “He’s a well respected public official, a well liked guy. It would be a surprise if he wasn’t. But it’s Beau, and not John, who has announced for governor and who Democrats are supporting.”

Yet the uncertainty about a Biden campaign remains real.

At Return Day in Georgetown on Thursday, where political opponents share carriages in a parade through town, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons talked about the 2016 race for governor without talking names.

“I am optimistic that the Democratic Party will put forward a capable, qualified, experienced nominee for governor in two years and look forward to working with whoever that nominee is,” Coons said.

Asked if Biden was a sure-thing candidate, Coons responded, “I think I’ve got a carriage to catch.”