Posted: Jan. 24, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

School children could be excused for thinking that governors of Delaware are elected for eight years. None of them were born the last time a governor was booted by the voters after one term.

For that matter, some of their teachers might not have been born, either.

It last happened in 1976, a time so distant, it is like an alien land. Daddy, what's a transistor radio?

Jack Markell, a first-term Democrat, could make it five governors in a row to go the constitutional limit. It certainly does not hurt that he is going into the 2012 election with $1.4 million in his campaign account or that the highest political office his opponent ever won was co-chair of the New Castle County Republicans.

Oh, the Republicans have somebody? They do. It is Jeff Cragg, a former insurance executive with a family-owned Mail Boxes Etc. store in Brandywine Hundred.

Cragg has not formally declared his candidacy yet. This is not an accident. By waiting until after Dec. 31, it means he does not have to file a campaign finance report until the next round is due in October. Markell has money, but Cragg has stealth.

For the past 36 years, the electorate here has re-elected Pete du Pont and Mike Castle, both Republicans, and Tom Carper and Ruth Ann Minner, both Democrats. All right, so the voters were caught napping with Minner.

The last challenger to take out an incumbent was du Pont. He was a congressman when he ousted Sherman Tribbitt in 1976.

"Incumbents have to lose. Challengers don't win," said Bill Lee, the onetime judge, three-time Republican candidate for governor and all-around political sage.

Lee has done about all there is to do as a gubernatorial candidate, except for the part about winning. He lost a primary in 2000, he nearly nipped Minner as the challenger in 2004, and he was drafted by the Republicans to run against Markell in 2008.

Besides Lee, the other challengers were Bill Gordy, a Democratic state representative who ran against du Pont in 1980, Jake Kreshtool, a lawyer who was the Democratic opponent for Castle in 1988, and Janet Rzewnicki, the Republican treasurer who took on Carper in 1996.

If they came up short, they earned a place in the heart of their fellow party members, although Rzewnicki had to go into exile for a while before she did.

On paper, Rzewnicki looked like a terrific candidate -- a statewide official running safely midway through her third term, with a following and name recognition, if not name pronunciation. It is Rez-NICK-y, although she was as likely to be called Rez-NIT-ski, like some kind of Russian boulevard.

Rzewnicki made the mistake of taking her candidacy really seriously and fostering a smear campaign against Carper. She paid the price by losing her next race for treasurer in 1998 to someone running statewide for the first time.

The winner was none other than Jack Markell, of course, and here he is now, going for a second term as governor. This is what is so entrancing about politics. Nobody could make this stuff up.

Cragg sounds like he knows what is what.

"Pete du Pont asked the question, are you better off with the guy who's governor, or are you better off with someone else? That's a valid question now, too. That's what elections are about," Cragg said.

Except for Lee, none of the challengers could keep the sitting governors from getting 70 percent of the vote or thereabouts. Markell was elected the first time with 68 percent, so he is already in range. This was on top of outpolling John Carney in the 2008 Democratic primary for governor, a choice that made people feel so awful, they made Carney a congressman two years later.

Elections can take strange turns -- Senator Castle, anyone? -- but this parade of two-term governors has not been stopped yet. Sometimes history does not just repeat itself, it positively stutters.