Posted: Nov. 10, 2015


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Legislators are running for higher office like they have nothing to lose.

As a matter of fact, just about all of them do not. All but one of them are state senators, running from the safety of the middle of a four-year term.

When Bethany Hall-Long declared for lieutenant governor last week, she became the fifth legislator looking to leave the Delaware General Assembly behind in the 2016 election.

It is an extraordinary number. Legislators rarely run for higher office. Not to mention they rarely win.

It can make for a kind of a vicious circle, if legislators do not want to run because they think they cannot win, but they cannot win if they do not run.

Inside Legislative Hall, this would pass for certain logic.

Somehow, though, there is this quintet looking in the mirror and seeing glory staring back.

Colin Bonini, a Republican state senator running for governor. The "Briens" -- Bryan Townsend, a Democratic state senator, and Bryon Short, a Democratic state representative -- for congressman. Bethany Hall-Long, a Democratic state senator for lieutenant governor. Bob Marshall, a Democratic state senator for Wilmington mayor. Only Short is out of office if he loses.

They are trying to do what Ruth Ann Minner alone has done in the last 40 years, when she went directly from a sitting legislator to a statewide officeholder.

Minner set the standard when she moved from Democratic state senator to lieutenant governor, elected in 1992 and 1996, and on to governor in 2000 and 2004, although there were also a couple of legislators who made it to mayor along the way.

Actually, there was once a time legislators not only ran a lot for higher office but won a lot.

1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s

Pete du Pont


Won for congressman, 1970

(later governor)

Bill Gordy


Lost for governor, 1980

Ruth Ann Minner


Won for lieutenant governor, 1992

(later governor)

Dave Ennis


Lost for insurance commissioner, 2004

Colin Bonini


Lost for treasurer, 2010

Laird Stabler


Won for attorney general, 1970

Tom Sharp


Lost for lieutenant governor, 1980

Jim Sills


Won for mayor, 1992

Charlie Copeland


Lost for lieutenant governor, 2008

Dennis Williams


Won for mayor, 2012

Jacob Zimmerman


Lost for senator, 1970

Nancy Cook


Lost primary for lieutenant governor, 1984




Governor, 2016

Sherman Tribbitt


Won for governor, 1972

Dave McBride


Lost primary for lieutenant governor, 1984



Bryon Short


Congressman, 2016

Cliff Hearn


Lost for lieutenant governor, 1972




Bryan Townsend


Congressman, 2016

Mel Slawik


Won for county executive, 1972




Bethany Hall-Long


Lieutenant governor, 2016

Jim McGinnis


Won for lieutenant governor, 1976




Bob Marshall


Mayor, 2016

David Elliott


Won for insurance commissioner, 1976





It was back at the beginning of modern state politics in the 1970s, when primaries replaced conventions as the way the Democrats and the Republicans selected their nominees for statewide office.

A rash of legislators went for it. From 1970 to 1976, out of the legislature there came a governor, a congressman who also became governor, an attorney general, a lieutenant governor and an insurance commissioner. Also rather infamously a New Castle County executive, whose term in office was terminated for another term in federal prison.

Then the candidate-go-round mostly stopped. With the exception of Minner and the mayors, there was nothing but a handful of failed campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer and insurance commissioner.

Why the pace has suddenly picked up again is anybody's guess.

"I think there's just an opportunity. There are seats that are open," said Bob Byrd, a lobbyist who has watched legislators come and go since he was a Democratic state representative himself for a couple of terms in the mid-1970s.

It is as good an explanation as any. There are open races in 2016 for governor, lieutenant governor and the congressional seat, and legislators have spoken for all of them.

While the offices of governor and lieutenant governor must open up periodically because of term limits, the congressional seat is hardly ever this available. With John Carney, the Democratic congressman, running for governor, it is only the fifth time going back to 1970 that nobody is running for re-election as Delaware's lone member in the House of Representatives.

Not a single statewide officeholder today has ever spent a moment as a legislator.

This includes Matt Denn, although he tried. He ran for state senator in 1996, but the voters must have recognized his potential because they did not elect him.

All that Denn did afterwards was go on a statewide spree as the Democratic insurance commissioner, lieutenant governor and now attorney general. Losing a legislative race was winning in disguise.