Posted: Nov. 2, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

There is something about Tom Carper that some of his opponents cannot stand.

Nobody else in Delaware politics has been as persistently spattered by mudslinging as he has, but never mind. He just wipes it away and keeps on going.

"Whatever I'm doing, it works. I get a big sympathy vote," Carper quipped.

Carper will be on the ballot on Tuesday, Election Day, for the 13th time, ready to set a record here for statewide wins as a Democratic treasurer, congressman, governor and now senator.

It has been 30 years since he last won by single digits -- a spread of less than 10 percentage points over his opponent -- and most recently he polled 67 percent for a second term in the Senate in 2006. Clearly there are masses of voters who like him.

Still, for someone who works at coming across like some Dudley Do-Right, the cartoon Canadian Mountie with his square jaw, clean living and boundless energy, the hits just keep on coming.

In other words, long before there was Alex Pires, the minor party candidate, with his taunts and smears, Carper had plenty of experience with it.

The worst was probably the first. It was so bad the New York Post, a saucy tabloid certainly in the running for the world's leading authority on the gutter, called it "the nation's dirtiest campaign."

In that one, back in 1982, Carper leaped hours before the filing deadline into a race against Tom Evans, the Republican congressman who was being romantically linked to a lobbyist, only to be accused himself of hitting his wife.

It was all far beyond the normal bounds of Delaware politics. In a Democratic year, Carper won.

The aftereffects gradually wore away. Carper and Evans are friends today. Evans' marriage healed, and he resurrected himself as a respected environmentalist. Carper, who did remarry, eventually acknowledged in an interview while he was the governor, "Did I slap my wife 20 years ago? Yes. Do I regret it? Yes. Would I do it again? No."

Since then, Carper has fended off other attacks.

There was Danny Rappa, a plumbing contractor and shady political operator, who wanted to get Carper as a vengeful payback after Carper drove Rappa and his crowd out of the Democratic Party structure. Rappa went after Carper in the 1990 congressional primary, got trounced 9-1, and exited by grumbling, "I've lived through Stalinism, Nazism, and I'm certain I'll live through Carperism."

There was also something of a reprise of the congressional race against Evans, as Carper was running for re-election as governor in 1996 against Janet Rzewnicki, the Republican state treasurer.

This time it was accusations about Martha Carper, his wife, going to an emergency room, a victim of spousal abuse, and filing for divorce.

Tom Carper took to carrying around a Bible, ready with the passage about loving thine enemies. Martha Carper, an international executive with DuPont, went solo with a dramatic press conference to refute everything and declare, "I love my husband, and he loves me."

Rzewnicki was suspected of being behind it but never owned up to it. She lost in a landslide.

Now there is Pires, running on the Independent Party of Delaware with as wild a campaign as people might expect from the owner of the Bottle & Cork, the boisterous nightspot in Dewey Beach.

Pires has slammed Carper's character -- "Delaware is the most corrupt state in the union, and Senator Carper is the most corrupt in our 200-year history" -- and asserted that Carper's health, both physically and emotionally, is so bad it will make him resign if re-elected.

Carper joked about going to the Bottle & Cork and doing a hundred pushups, and then he really did get up on a table at a Democratic political dinner in Felton and do 30 of them. Otherwise, he has been rocketing around the state as usual, letting his pace do the talking, and matter-of-factly suggesting that Washington needs bridge-builders, not more bomb throwers.

If Carper has become used to toxic charges, the state still is not.

"This has turned out to be a more 'robust' Senate race than I expected. Independent Alex Pires injected an aggressive and churlish note into the campaign inconsistent with the state's usual campaign norms," said Joe Pika, a political scientist at the University of Delaware.

"Carper has been engaged and lively, showing that health concerns are unwarranted. His appeal to 'bridge-building' is fully consistent with Delaware's moderate tradition, and his self-control in the face of repeated personal attacks provides a good example of the patience and balance required of bridge-builders."

Delaware voters have yet to warm to minor-party candidates, anyway.

The best showing in the last 10 years belonged to Vivian Houghton, a lawyer who ran for attorney general on the Green Party in 2002 after years of experience as a Democratic operative. She managed 6 percent of the vote.

True, an Independent candidate for attorney general in 2010 did get 21 percent, but that result is skewed at best, because the Republicans did not put up anyone against Beau Biden, the better to discourage his father-the-vice-president from doing a lot of campaigning here and stirring up the Democratic vote.

FiveThirtyEight, the New York Times feature that does statistical analysis of elections, projects Carper with 66 percent of the vote and Kevin Wade, the often overlooked Republican candidate, with 32 percent. That would leave 2 percent for Pires.

In the exhaustion and ugliness of the campaign against Evans in 1982, Carper took the time on Election Day for breakfast with Ed Freel, his campaign manager who later became his secretary of state, at Arner's restaurant near New Castle.

Not that they are superstitious or anything, but after the bilge of this campaign, it will be Arner's for breakfast once again.