Which door will Rep. Mike Castle choose?


In the small world of Delaware politics, one big question overshadows everything else: What will Rep. Mike Castle do next?

The Delaware Republican, who turns 70 in July, has three options: retire from the House seat he has held for the past 16 years, run for reelection against a well-known Democrat who has already won statewide office or wage a campaign for the Senate in a race that would most likely pair him against the son of Vice President Joe Biden.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for the GOP. Castle is likely the only Republican who could hold the House seat and likely the only one who could capture the Senate seat that will be left open when appointed Sen. Ted Kaufman, a Democrat, steps down in 2010.

“The question for Mike Castle is: What does he want to do?” said Mike Hudome, a Delaware-based GOP strategist.

“Delaware has become one of the most Democratic states in the nation,” noted Delaware Democratic National Committeeman Rhett Ruggerio. “[Castle] is the last man standing.”

Castle has remained tight-lipped about his next move. The usually media-friendly Delaware Republican declined multiple overtures last week to discuss his future. People close to Castle tell POLITICO they expect him to make a decision in the next month.

But the former governor and nine-term congressman has dropped subtle hints that he is looking to make a run for the Senate, telling a Capitol Hill newspaper late last month that he was more likely to run for the Senate than the House — if he decides to return to Congress at all.

“While Mike Castle hasn’t made up his mind, he seems to be indicating that he would rather run for the U.S. Senate than [the House],” said Tom Ross, chairman of the Delaware Republican Party.

Former Democratic Lt. Gov. John Carney’s announcement that he would run for the at-large seat in 2010 has added fuel to the rumors that Castle is preparing to leave the House. Carney and Castle are longtime friends — and, to some, a contest between the two would be unthinkable.

Castle has proved to be a remarkably durable politician, swimming against a strong Democratic tide in Delaware for years — Democrats boast a 13 percent voter registration edge in the state.

He has outperformed the past five Republican presidential nominees by more than 20 points and ran roughly 25 points ahead of John McCain in 2008, when Barack Obama shellacked the GOP nominee 62 percent to 37 percent.

Delaware insiders attribute Castle’s political success to his ability to stake out moderate positions. A co-founder of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, Castle voted for all six of the Democratic “100 Hour” items when the new majority came into power in 2007. During the Bush era, Castle opposed the administration’s plans to restrict federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and parted ways with the president on his proposed cuts to Amtrak funding — an important issue in Delaware.