GOP sees chance for statewide office win

By Jonathan Starkey and Jon Offredo — The News Journal

A week before Election Day, Delaware Democrats find themselves in an unfamiliar position: anxious they could lose a statewide political office to the state’s down-and-out Republican Party.

The battleground is the race for state treasurer, where a former political aide to Gov. Jack Markell and U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del, faces a Republican on Nov. 4 with experience as a hedge fund manager and as chief financial officer of a family business.

Internal polls on the Democratic and Republican sides have shown Democrat Sean Barney trailing Republican Ken Simpler, sources say.

The race’s outcome could be one of political significance in Delaware. No Republican candidate who was not an incumbent has won statewide office since M. Jane Brady won election to the Attorney General’s office in 1994.

The treasurer’s race could hinge on whether Democrats, who have 125,000 more registered voters than Republicans, can get enough of them to the polls on Election Day.

“We’re working with the entire Democratic ticket to make sure we get out the vote for Democrats,” said Erik Raser-Schramm, chair of the Democrats’ statewide coordinated campaign, which has 21 staffers in six offices across the state.

“It’s always tough in a midterm election to get out the vote. We’re not taking our party registration advantage for granted.”

But in a midterm election marked by distrust of government and political fatigue, not everyone is convinced Democrats are on solid ground, saying election night could be unusually turbulent.

“I think it’s going to be an interesting night,” Democratic House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst said.

Republicans have been subjected to the back row of Delaware politics for some time.

The party has just one statewide officeholder, Auditor Tom Wagner, who is facing a challenge from Democrat Brenda Mayrack, a lawyer and onetime executive director of the Delaware Democratic Party.

In Dover, Democrats control supermajorities in the both the state House and Senate. And since former Governor and Congressman Mike Castle lost a primary to Tea Partier Christine O’Donnell in 2010, the GOP has struggled to field competitive statewide candidates.

Even many of this year’s races show weakness for Republicans. U.S. Sen. Chris Coons and Rep. John Carney, both Democrats, are expected to cruise to re-election. Lt. Gov. Matt Denn is a heavy favorite to become the state’s next attorney general.

This year’s race for treasurer, an office formerly held by Markell and Carper, could prove different.

Simpler, the Republican treasurer candidate, is a former managing director of the Chicago-based hedge fund Citadel LLC who now works at the chief financial officer for his family’s Rehoboth-based hotel management business, Seaboard Hotels.

Barney worked as an economic policy aide to U.S. Sen. Tom Carper and, for a year, as policy director to Gov. Jack Markell. He also ran Markell’s 2012 re-election campaign. And he served as a Marine in Iraq, where he was severely wounded by a gunshot in Fallujah.

David Chandler will also appear on next week’s ballot as a Green Party candidate for state treasurer.

All three are seeking an office that helps manage $2 billion in taxpayer cash, as well as collecting taxes and overseeing disbursements to state employees and vendors. The treasurer also sits on state panels that considers pardons and sentence commutations and employee benefit packages. The race has been without an incumbent since Democrat Chip Flowers abandoned his re-election effort in August.

Barney’s campaign is backed by Carper, Markell and other top Democrats, a boon to any first-time campaigner. In a recently-purchased television advertisement that focuses on Barney’s military background, Carper says “no one will do more for Delaware families,” in the treasurer’s office.

In the final days of the campaign, Barney has criticized Simpler’s experience as a hedge fund manager, saying the rapid-speed stock trading practiced by Citadel benefits the wealthy at the expense of more ordinary investors.

“That has absolutely nothing to do with the state portfolio,” Barney said in an interview with The News Journal on Monday, noting that the portfolio partly managed by the treasurer’s office invests primarily in highly-rated corporate debt, not stocks.

Barney said Simpler’s professional experience also makes him question whether Simpler will “use the position to benefit those who need the most attention.”

The Democrat said he would use the treasurer’s office as a public leadership post, advocating to improve economic inequality and to bring transparency to public spending. He hopes to create savings accounts for every child born in Delaware seeded with $50 to $100 from private foundations.

Simpler says he would use his financial experience to look for efficiencies and savings in the state’s cash management system. And he would seek more transparency in the state’s $2 billion cash portfolio, using new information to boost performance.

“What’s going to get the attention of people in Dover, get them to cooperate with you, are not the beauty or selflessness of your ideas,” Simpler said in an interview. “If you go down to the treasury and start making money, they will pay attention. Resources are scarce.”

Simpler’s campaign has its own prominent backers. In July, Castle, the former Republican governor and congressman, called Simpler “outstanding, maybe the most qualified to ever run for that position in Delaware.”

In an interview, Simpler countered Barney’s criticism of his hedge fund experience, saying he managed a private investments unit that traded in corporate debt, similar investments to those held by the state.

The Republican’s campaign, and its closest supporters, have also questioned Barney’s suitability for the office.

Mailers and advertisements produced by Simpler’s campaign and a political action committee linked to the Republican have linked Barney to Markell’s policies, including a controversial but failed proposal to raise Delaware’s gas tax 10 cents to fund transportation improvements.

“Barney’s been in the D.C. Beltway and Dover too long – he has no problem paying for massive new spending with higher taxes on people like us,” says a mailer funded by Foundation for Delaware’s Future, the pro-Simpler PAC. “It’s all he knows.”

Barney was Markell’s policy director during early negotiations about raising the gas tax. But the Democrat attempted to distance himself from the governor’s policies on Monday.

“The governor makes his own decisions,” Barney said in an interview. “I, as state treasurer, would make my own decisions.”

Republicans could find themselves occupying two statewide offices if Wagner can fend off a challenge from Mayrack.

Mayrack has gone after Wagner’s record, saying the long-time state auditor has not produced results from the office and can’t even secure the funds to run and staff it properly. “What exactly is Tom Wagner doing to protect our tax dollars?” asks a mailer Mayrack’s campaign sent to voters. “Not much.”

As auditor, Mayrack says she would create a fraud division to root out potential fraud and taxpayer waste, provide proper training for those involved in state contracts, and modernize the office by using technology to spot potential problems within the state’s books.

Delaware’s auditor also should conduct more performance audits to find savings in state government, Mayrack said.

“We should be doing dozens of these every year,” Mayrack said.

Wagner said his opponent misunderstands the office and its function, saying he has no control over the funding, staffing levels and whether or not the attorney general decides to pursue a case.

As the lone Republican statewide officeholder, Wagner said he remains the state’s best check on political imbalance in Dover. Wagner was appointed to the position by Castle in 1989 and has won six four-year terms since.

“My opponent is the former executive director of the state Democratic party, whose job was to get elected the same people she’s going to audit,” Wagner said. “I just think that common sense would say you have an independent check and balance. Or do you want to have complete one party control with someone who has a background as a political operative?”

If re-elected, Wagner says he will audit state vendor expenses, saying officials should ensure taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.

Wagner added that he and Simpler are the most qualified for the two “technical” positions of auditor and treasurer.​

In the final week before Election Day, the race for state treasurer will be the more closely watched campaign.

Rhett Ruggerio, a Dover lobbyist and a Democrat, said the Democratic Party’s voter registration advantage and turnout efforts could halt Simpler’s momentum. But a rare statewide pickup for the GOP remains a real possibility. “Democrats have tremendous ground game,” Ruggerio said. “They know they need to pump out as many votes as they can. If they do that successfully and Republicans don’t vote I wouldn’t be shocked to see Barney, who was down in the polls significantly, pull it off. “But Simpler is going to be a star of the Republican Party if he can get elected.”

Contact Jonathan Starkey at 983-6756, on Twitter @jwstarkey or at Contact Jon Offredo at 678-4271, on Twitter @jonoffredo or at