Posted: Oct. 22, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Jack Markell is not on the ballot this year, but he still has a lot riding on Election Day.

It goes beyond even the considerable interest a governor has in the races for the Delaware General Assembly, where both chambers currently are in the control of friendly Democrats.

At least, mostly friendly Democrats, as long as Markell is not doing something like proposing to eliminate the state Finance Department. Not only was it a dubious concept, but there was a perfectly good job as finance secretary that could go to Tom Cook, the son of Nancy Cook, a Democratic state senator. Never mind.

For this campaign season Markell is the chair of the Democratic Governors Association.

It means his ballot watching will extend later and more distantly on Election Night, past the time it takes to confirm just how many Delaware voters came out of their polling places while they hummed ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead.

"My first interest will be the statewide races here, alongside and equal to the state House and state Senate races. Then I'll be checking our incumbent governors, and if we can win in Florida and California, two huge states, they would be great pickups," Markell said.

Martin O'Malley, the Democratic governor in neighboring Maryland, is on Markell's list to check, as is Deval Patrick, running for re-election in a close race in Massachusetts, and Ted Strickland, the endangered incumbent in Ohio. Alex Sink in Florida and Jerry Brown in California are in open races that could flip two governorships to the Democrats.

It seems to be somewhat of a curious assignment for Markell, who accepted the yearlong post last December, when he had only been a governor himself for about 11 months in a state searching for its economic footing.

Furthermore, Markell does not have a reputation for partisan warfare, not to mention his side is not exactly favored to win. Mid-term elections typically cost governorships to the president's party, more so amid a rocky economy and poll numbers reflecting presidential disapproval.

There are 37 governorships up for election. The current lineup is 26 Democratic governors and 24 Republican governors (including Florida where Charlie Crist switched to unaffiliated to run for the Senate.) Most predictions call for the Republicans to gain seven or eight.

Markell reasoned he ought to take the post because of the collateral benefit for Delaware through the connections he could make with potential employers.

It is a less cynical explanation than the conventional political take on it -- which is that the chair usually goes to a Democratic governor who is not up for election and not regarded as vulnerable at home. It is a small universe.

"This was a very good opportunity for me to expand the number of people we can talk to about Delaware and get in front of people who can create jobs or move jobs," Markell said.

Tom Carper and Mike Castle, both of whom know something about being governor, thought Markell was smart to accept the job. Carper was the Democratic governor from 1993 to 2001 before he went to the Senate, and Castle was the Republican governor from 1985 to 1993 before he moved to the House of Representatives.

They both spent time on a larger stage, too, Carper as a chair of the National Governors Association and Castle as a chair of the Southern Governors Association.

"It enables you to establish a higher profile for your state. If you happen to be the governor of a small state with fewer than a million people, it helps you maximize your opportunities. I think he saw that and acted on it," said Carper.

"It's a recognition by his fellow Democrats that he's capable of helping them with their fund-raising activities, so it's clearly a feather in his cap," said Castle.

Still, this is one of those can't-get-no-respect things for the political crowd at home, where the focus is, as always, on what is in it for them. One leading Republican said in surprise, "Is he? I didn't know he was."

It is all right with Markell. "My job is to make them care, if some of the contacts I make, make things happen here," he said.

If the reward is somewhat vague, at least the risk is, too. Markell's standing is not tied to any potential losses of the Democratic candidates. Barack Obama should be so lucky.

Markell has done some traveling -- for example, he was briefly in Florida and Rhode Island this week -- but it is nothing like the road show of his Republican counterpart.

The chair of the Republican Governors Association is Haley Barbour of Mississippi. He is a former chair of the national Republican Party, a possible presidential candidate in 2012 and maybe the only prominent officeholder who actually did a heck-of-a-job after Katrina.

Barbour is about to start a "Remember November Tour" through 13 states in five days with a bunch of other frontline Republican governors. He is getting breathless coverage.

Such are the political tides. The Democrats have Markell because he figured the job could bring him a bigger profile, and the Republicans have Barbour because they figured he could bring a bigger profile to the job.