Posted: Feb. 23, 2016


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The biggest office on the statewide ballot in 2016 is having the quietest race. Delaware has got to get a new governor, after all.

Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, is on his way out after his quota of two terms, and although the race to replace him has candidates in the flesh, the campaign spirit has been weak.

The Democrats are going with John Carney, the state's lone congressman, and the Republicans are pretty much set with Colin Bonini, a state senator who was their 2010 candidate for treasurer, except Bonini has a nagging primary with a Tea Party candidate.

While other statewide candidates are barnstorming around, Carney and Bonini have mostly been sticking to their political day jobs and just taking the exposure wherever it comes.

It probably pays to remember that both of them are basically their party's backup plan.

Carney is where the Democrats turned after Beau Biden. By all rights the Republicans should be going with Ken Simpler -- the shiny new treasurer whose election in 2014 made him the first Republican to break into the statewide rank in 20 years -- because nobody gets elected governor anymore without having previously run and won statewide, but Simpler took himself out early.

At least Bonini has run statewide, if not won. He came close for treasurer, undone in a year the Republicans collapsed here with Christine "I'm Not a Witch" O'Donnell at the top of their ticket.

O'Donnell is gone, and so is Chip Flowers, the Democrat who beat out Bonini for treasurer but self-destructed to make way for Simpler. If there can be a political equivalent to buyers' remorse, then Simpler is it, the personification of voters' remorse.

While Carney carries on as congressman, Bonini looks to be using a five-week break in the legislative schedule to shake off some of the campaign doldrums.

Bonini appeared Monday evening at the Wilmington Club, a bastion of Old Delaware off Rodney Square, for a reception hosted for him by Ben du Pont, whose father Pete du Pont was the Republican governor from 1977 to 1985.

An event hosted by a du Pont at the Wilmington Club is about as good an indication as there can be that the party establishment is ready to rally around.

About 50 people attended, and give them credit. It can take a willing suspension of disbelief to back a Republican candidate for governor, considering there are 126,000 more Democratic than Republican voters and there has not been a Republican governor elected since 1988, while the voters went with a Democratic streak of Tom Carper, Ruth Ann Minner and Jack Markell.

Bonini nevertheless told the crowd the race was winnable, arguing that Delaware is moving in the wrong direction and his campaign can put together a coalition of Republicans, unaffiliated voters and 30,000 to 50,000 persuadable Democrats to vote for him to try something different.

"The here-and-now needs some serious change. We need to lower taxes across the board, we need to reform regulations, the things we always talk about. You know why we talk about those things? Because they've never not worked," Bonini said.

"The one key ingredient that we are missing is the will to do it. We've had good people in the governor's office and the General Assembly. My opponent isn't just a nice guy, he's a good guy. They aren't going to change anything. Delaware needs to elect a street fighter."

Bonini's remarks were backed up by Charlie Copeland, the Republican state chair who is a du Pont himself, although the party is officially neutral until after the primary on Sept. 13.

"John Carney makes Jeb Bush look like a high-energy candidate. I'm just saying. He's going to be somewhat similar to Ruth Ann Minner and Jack Markell mixed together and spat out on cold toast. I'm just saying. He's a good guy, just like Jeb was a good guy. Maybe it's time to show him the door," Copeland said.

"The numbers are bad for us in Delaware. The Democrats have screwed it up so badly that the blue-collar Democrat voter is saying, I'm getting a raw deal. They're either going to stay home, or they're coming to our side."

Bonini has been a state senator for a Kent County district since 1994, when he was elected at 29 years old as part of a young conservative vanguard. He was mentioned for statewide office as early as 1996, as a potential challenger to Joe Biden, but he has not gotten there.

Instead, Bonini has waited in the legislature, where he is known for keeping up his conservative credentials by sponsoring a resolution declaring "Ronald Reagan Day" on the president's birthday every Feb. 6 and for never voting for the state budget. He has not shown a conservative's interest in term limits, though, not as the longest-tenured state senator on the Republican side of the aisle.

Delaware Republicans have done little but lose ground during Bonini's time in political life, so here he is, presenting himself as a turnaround artist for his party and for his state.

It has Bonini sounding like a walking, talking rebuttal, taking on yes-we-can and answering with a defiant no-you-couldn't.