Posted: March 14, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Abby Betts was recovering from gall bladder surgery when the floral get-well wishes arrived.

Flowers from Lt. Gov. John Carney. Flowers from Treasurer Jack Markell. "Who are you?" the florist shop wanted to know.

Oh, nobody. Just the Kent County Democratic chair as the Delaware Democrats consider what to do about an endorsement in the intensifying competition for governor.

Largely out of public view, it is crunch time for Carney and Markell. The same goes for other statewide office seekers vying for the party's backing in the Democrats' multiple-candidate fields for the U.S. House of Representatives, lieutenant governor and insurance commissioner.

Over the next three months, the local Democratic committees in the 41 state representative districts are supposed to forward their recommendations to the New Castle County, Kent County, Sussex County and Wilmington level, so those subdivisions can funnel their preferences to the state. In a session yet to be scheduled, the 24-member state executive committee will vote to endorse.

Or maybe not.

In the early days of this process, the biggest question is not who to endorse, but whether to endorse. Roughly half of the local committees seem disinclined to take sides between Carney and Markell. They would rather let the gubernatorial nomination play out through the primary election on Tuesday, Sept. 9.

Ironically for the party, not to decide is to decide. Carney is regarded as the Organization Man, the candidate riding a pack of endorsements from labor unions and party insiders. An endorsement generally is assumed to be his. If the organization takes a pass, it is Markell who would be smiling.

It is also Markell who had $2.5 million at the last reckoning to spend on a primary, as opposed to Carney's $1 million.

Markell and Carney did not hide their alternate interests Tuesday evening at a statewide candidates forum, when they spoke at Marbrook Elementary School near Prices Corner to about 100 Democrats from Hockessin, Pike Creek Valley and Elsmere.

Markell went first, downplaying an endorsement. "I know there's been a lot of talk among the districts whether there's going to be an endorsement in this race, and I'm not going to comment on that. What I'm going to do is take my message, my mission for a brighter future for Delaware, to every part of this state in an energetic grassroots campaign," he said.

Carney made a direct pitch. "I've been endorsed by 25 of our legislators and many of our other elected officials. I'd love to have the endorsement of your committees," he said.

As much as this endorsement debate could drive the momentum between Carney and Markell, it is also consuming the Democrats in a larger discussion about the role of the party.

John Daniello, the relentless state chair, wants the party to take the lead. It is what parties do.

Daniello is such a dedicated party man and consummate organizer that he may be the one Democrat who could make a liar out of Will Rogers, the philosopher/humorist who said, "I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat."

Daniello has turned the Democrats into a juggernaut while the Republicans are faltering, and he believes it is because the party structure is lifting up the candidates, not the other way around.

"If the party's going to be relevant, the party has to show the way to win," Daniello said. "I'm confident and assured in the rightness of my way. To opt for letting the primaries do it is to opt for the money to be the final word."

Yes but. Legions of Democratic loyalists are fond of both Carney and Markell and do not want to be pushed into an endorsement that would be excruciating to make and would not settle anything, anyway. Nor do they want an intramural brawl that could create enough dissension to cripple other efforts -- like taking the majority away from the Republicans in the state House of Representatives.

"We've never been in this situation before. We have all these good candidates," said Betts, the Kent County chair with the flowers from Carney and Markell. "People tell me, they don't want to upset anybody. They feel uncomfortable and would feel more comfortable letting the primary play out."

Furthermore, endorsements can carry a certain amount of risk. In the 2006 primary, the Democrats came out of it looking strong because all of their endorsed candidates won, from contests for U.S. representative to state representative, while the Republicans looked weak because the party failed to deliver for a number of theirs.

There was a catch, though. The Democrats did not endorse in all cases, especially when two party regulars were clashing. It is a model that could be applied to Carney and Markell.

As the Democrats wrestle with what to do, they are consoling themselves with the thought that they are better off than the other party. The Republicans, who make their statewide endorsements at a convention, have one scheduled for May 3, but still could use some candidates. The cupboard is bare of anyone credible for governor.

"It shows you the difference between the two parties. We've got feast, and they've got famine. We have good candidates, and no matter how the primary turns out, the Republicans have nothing," said Tom Chapman, the Sussex County Democratic chair.

The reach of an endorsement only goes so far. In the end, the Democratic voters will do what they want to do. Insurance Commissioner Matt Denn, running for lieutenant governor against Wilmington Council President Ted Blunt, was wryly aware of it when he recently released a list of supporters.

Denn gathered up two names in all 41 representative districts. His backing included such notables as Senate Majority Whip Patti Blevins and House Minority Leader Bob Gilligan, but even so . . .

Denn wrote on his campaign blog, "Well, I'm getting at least 82 votes."