GOP’s best courting Castle for Senate
Representative asks party to tone it down

By NICOLE GAUDIANO — News Journal Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Former President George H.W. Bush has placed a call.

Former Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain has paid a visit.

So many Republican senators have urged Rep. Mike Castle to run for Senate, the nine-term Delaware lawmaker gently put out the word recently to cool it, saying he’d decide on his own timetable, according to the Senate’s top Republican recruiter.

“I’ve been calling him and e-mailing him and I’ve been encouraging my other colleagues to call him and e-mail him and go by and visit him,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I got sort of an indication the other day we ought to kind of back off a little bit.”

Castle, 69, may seem an unlikely “It” guy for the GOP. Independent-minded, he is among the House Republicans who break from the party most often on party-line votes, including issues such as increased federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

But after being battered the last two election cycles, Republicans appear more willing to swallow the idea of Castle running for higher office in 2010. Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., appointed to replace Vice President Joe Biden after his 36-year tenure in the Senate, has said he won’t run for election, leaving the seat open.

Democrats hope Biden’s son, Beau, Delaware’s attorney general, will enter the race and Republicans see Castle as their best chance for winning a seat that’s been reliably Democratic for decades.

Beyond politics, they also seem to just like the guy.

Bush Sr. wrote in an e-mail that his call to Castle was “very unusual.”

“I have not made any other calls like this this year,” Bush wrote. “This is all about my personal respect for Mike. He can get along with everyone but still be a strong leader. I hope he runs. Congress needs him.”

The campaign to recruit Castle has become so widely known, some fellow House members have jokingly started calling him “senator.” By remaining largely noncommittal, Castle has only fueled the suspense.

“I say don’t rush this, please don’t rush this,” Castle said during an interview, laughing. “They’re highly amused by the whole thing.”

Castle says he’s “probably leaning a little more to the Senate” than a run for re-election to the House — if he doesn’t retire. Either way, he said, he owes it to the Republican Party to make a decision “sooner rather than later.”

“By sooner, I mean a matter of weeks or a couple of months,” he said. “I’m not going to wait until next year.”

GOP needs psychological lift

Should Castle decide to run for Senate, it would bring national media attention along with a “huge” psychological boost to the party, said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report. Republicans could cite Castle’s decision in fundraising efforts, saying, “We’re back. We’ve got a strong candidate in Delaware,” he said.

“Castle would be a gigantic Republican recruiting success and it would change the math in that race dramatically, more dramatically probably than any race in the country,” he said. “It would suddenly put it as a hot Republican takeover opportunity.”

The past two election cycles have been tough on Republicans, who have lost 53 seats in the House and 15 in the Senate since 2006. The Senate figure reflects Sen. Arlen Specter’s April defection to the Democratic Party and a three-judge panel’s decision declaring Democrat Al Franken the winner of a still-contested seat in Minnesota.

The Republican losses could ultimately give Senate Democrats a filibuster-proof 60 votes on big issues, if Franken is seated. “[Republicans] still have an upward climb when it comes to the Senate,” Rothenberg said. “There are just a number of Senate retirements and open seats and so it’s going to be difficult for them to hold their ground.”

Castle, meanwhile, has defied his party’s trend, winning re-election in 2006 with 57 percent of the vote and in 2008 with 61 percent. He is an anomaly in Democratic-leaning Delaware, where he’s “pretty universally liked,” said Rhett Ruggerio, Delaware’s Democratic national committeeman.

Recent polls suggest Castle would beat Beau Biden in a hypothetical pairing. Biden is currently serving with his National Guard unit in Iraq. He hasn’t announced his intentions, but Ruggerio said, “I don’t think there’s any doubt he’s considering it.”

Ruggerio believes that while Castle could be a challenging opponent, Biden would ultimately be more attractive to voters because he’s “young, progressive, has new ideas” and better represents the concerns of Delawareans.

Plus, he asked, “How does [Castle] expect to get work done being a junior Republican senator” in a Democratic-controlled House and Senate?

No more room for Democrats?

On the U.S. Senate floor, Republican desks have been unbolted and hauled over to the more crowded Democratic side of the aisle. In January, Senate Republicans switched meeting rooms with Democrats for weekly policy lunches because the Democrats needed more space.

Talk to Republicans milling outside those new quarters and it’s clear Castle’s been getting an earful.

“I told him someone with his background and experience would have an immediate impact here in the Senate,” McCain said.

“He just said, ‘Let me think about it,’ ” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

“I just said, ‘You’ve got to run,’ ” said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.

Even in the minority, Republicans have a greater voice in the Senate than in the House because the Senate is smaller and senators can filibuster, Gregg explained.

“In the House, when you’re in the minority, your voice is muted,” Gregg said. “In fact, it’s trampled on.”

Castle said McCain made a similar case. Castle said he “totally” agrees he could have a greater impact among 100 senators than among 435 House members.

“In the House, it’s very hard to sell a message to a majority of 435 people,” Castle said. “I went through that with embryonic stem cells. I probably had about 50 one-on-one conversations that went on for anyplace from 30 minutes to an hour with individual members. It’s tough work.”

Bush’s pitch focused on Castle’s experience and the best interests of the country and state, Castle said.

“I guess if you could jump out of airplanes when you’re 80 and 85, I guess I could consider running,” Castle said he responded, referring to the former president’s well-publicized birthday feats.

Not afraid to break party lines

As a moderate, Castle isn’t the kind of Republican that conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh would celebrate. Some members of the GOP’s conservative base may say there isn’t enough difference between Castle and a Democrat, Rothenberg said.

Castle has voted in recent years against drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, against limiting interstate abortion and against barring same-sex marriages. And he was a chief proponent of measures to increase federal funding for embryonic stem cell research that were twice vetoed by President George W. Bush.

But it isn’t as if his record doesn’t reflect his party. Though he voted against the troop “surge” in Iraq, he has drawn criticism from the left for opposing troop withdrawal timelines. He only changed his vote in support of a timeline last year when it was described as a goal and wasn’t tied to the funding of troops. He also voted against President Barack Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan signed into law in February.

Castle’s Senate supporters say his moderate record is reflective of his constituents.

“I think conservatives have to wake up and realize that in some of these states in the East, they’re not going to get conservatives,” said Hatch, a conservative who has worked with Castle on federal funding for stem cell research. “I think [Castle is] conservative economically and, you know, that’s what we really need more than anything else right now.”

Until he decides, Castle’s phone may keep ringing.

“I would love to see Mike Castle run,” said GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, another conservative. “I have not personally talked to him, but I intend to.”