Posted: April 15, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The great John Williams was an obscure Sussex County feed dealer when he determined to run as a Republican for the U.S. Senate in 1946 and shockingly beat a Democratic incumbent who was a political institution.

Williams went on to a national reputation as the "Conscience of the Senate" in four terms, and his legend lives on. In Sussex County Republican circles, they still harbor the hope that someday another unknown could rise from their midst, this time to unseat Joe Biden, the six-term celebrity senator who is the Democrats' voice on foreign policy.

There was Jim Baxter, a Sussex County chicken farmer who was the Republican senatorial candidate in 1978. There was John Burris, who had a certain amount of political recognition as a state House majority leader from Sussex County, as Biden's opponent in 1984. There also was Jane Brady, a Sussex County prosecutor who ran in 1990 and turned it into a springboard for attorney general and a judgeship.

Vance Phillips tried in 1996. A Sussex County watermelon farmer, Phillips wanted to run against Biden but failed to survive a Republican primary for the nomination. All was not lost, though, as Phillips later won a Sussex County Council seat, which he still has. These days he is also the Delaware Republican Party's vice chair.

Not too long ago, Phillips mentioned his experience to Tim Smith, a fellow Sussex County Republican conservative with a technology firm called Delmarva Digital. The legend shimmered.

"I told him my story. I didn't know at the time that he wanted to go for it," Phillips said.

Smith has set his sights on Biden. In keeping with the custom, there is no doubt Smith qualifies as a politically-anonymous Sussex County Republican who would not mind being the next John Williams. His political experience amounts to chairing the 39th Representative District Republicans in the Seaford area.

Smith may have company for the nomination, though. Christine O'Donnell, who ran as a write-in candidate after losing the Republican senatorial primary in 2006, also has designs on Biden's seat.

The problem for any Republican candidate is that the best shot of removing Biden from the Senate is having a president make him the secretary of state.

Otherwise, Biden warmed up for this Senate race with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as sparring partners, and he began the year with a comfortable $1.5 million in his campaign account, not to mention the huge wink the voters gave him when they elected his son as the attorney general.

As Larry Sabato, the political prognosticator from the University of Virginia, put it, "This is Joe Biden's seat, it has been since 1973, and it will remain his seat for as long as he chooses to keep it."

Still, Smith's fellow Sussex County Republicans appreciate his spunk, even if he did not have enough of it to return telephone calls asking for an interview either Monday or Tuesday.

"I was surprised, but he's an energetic guy. He's interested in politics, and he's well-versed on the national scene," said state Rep. Danny Short, a Seaford Republican.

"He's real intent on running and making a real good show," said Ron Sams, the Sussex County Republican chair.

Even without John Williams' legacy, it is not a surprise that a Sussex Countian would step forward. The most southern and conservative of Delaware's three counties has emerged as the last base for the Republicans in a state that has tilted more and more Democratic since the early 1990s.

If Smith makes it onto the statewide ticket, at least three of the five Republican candidates could be from Sussex -- Smith, John Brady for insurance commissioner and possibly Bill Lee for governor. A choice for lieutenant governor is up in the air.

That leaves Mike Castle, the Republican congressman from upstate in Wilmington, and he has a place at the beach. John Williams, who lived in Millsboro, had a summer house there, too.