Posted: June 8, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The politics of the 21st Century arrived definitively in Delaware on Wednesday at 8:37 p.m. with the mouse click that posted the Webcast of Treasurer Jack A. Markell, declaring his intention to run for governor, even if it meant a Democratic primary with Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr.

It was not just the online element, the same way that Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the state's own Joe Biden announced their presidential campaigns, although the techno-speech clearly is essential for politics on the cutting edge.

It was the dismissal of the after-you-Alphonse turn taking that has predominated in the high reaches of state politics for a generation, a charm-school approach that led to an orderly procession of four two-term governors and prompted the classic minuet that had Republican Michael N. Castle and Democrat Thomas R. Carper trading the governorship and lone congressional office in 1992.

This just in. Alphonse and Gaston are pulling off the white gloves.

Delaware politics is ready to rumble. For decades the voters craved tranquility, preserving incumbents except when the occasional case of incompetence or scandal required them to be chucked out.

Now it all seems so last-century. In this more ruthless day of "Survivor" and "American Idol," the voters embraced the willingness of Carper in 2000 to stalk and dispatch U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr., an aging Republican who never saw his defeat coming. The voters were moving beyond an era symbolized by a politician defined by a guileless and faithful Saint Bernard accompanying him on the campaign trail.

Carper's political patricide was justifiable on the grounds that he was a Democrat and Roth was a Republican. What comes next, however, appears to be the more taboo political fratricide, Democrat-on-Democrat violence, in the shootout to replace Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the two-term Democrat who is retiring in 2008, and eventually Biden, Carper and Castle, all in their 60s.

Delaware has not experienced such political upheaval since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when governors and members of Congress were dumped and the parties were convulsed by the most searing primaries the state ever saw. It may or may not be a coincidence that those days also were a time of a stubborn war and maligned presidency.

Markell and Carney are on the brink of the new politics, even as the Democratic party leadership persists in whistling past the primary, which it regards very much as a potential graveyard for entombing the unity needed for campaigning against the Republicans.

"The inevitability of a primary is too premature," said John D. Daniello, the Democratic state chair who has a personal reason for loathing primaries.

Daniello ran in the Democrats' first one in 1970, when the parties were switching from conventions to primaries for selecting their nominees. Although he beat Samuel L. Shipley for the congressional nomination, the race was so thunderous that people from one side resent the other to this day and Daniello's camp was so exhausted and broke, it had nothing left for Republican Pierre S. "Pete" du Pont, putting him on his way to the House of Representatives and the governorship.

Daniello is a diehard party man with a conviction that being a Democrat trumps being a candidate. He wants rivalries to be settled by a competition for the party's endorsement and notes it effectively happened in 2006, when the endorsed candidates won every primary. Well, sort of.

The party expressed no preference in particularly competitive races, leaving the nomination up to the primary voters. If its abundance of statewide candidates, beginning with Carney and Markell, were to decide on collision courses, there is no telling whether the party's impulse would be to endorse or to duck-and-cover.

Call these combustible up-and-comers the Democrats' Ivy League. They have Carney from Dartmouth and Markell from Brown. In addition, Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn went to Yale law and Attorney General Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III to Penn. New Castle County Executive Christopher A. Coons has double degrees from the Yale law and divinity schools -- demonstrating that not just the Bidens believe they have a divine right to be in politics.

These officeholders are the types who are going to do what they are going to do.

"I'm sorry to say I see more primaries in the 21st Century because there is no gatekeeper. The party eliminated itself as a gatekeeper when it moved from the convention selection of candidates to the primary selection of candidates. We've created entrepreneurial candidates, and they're going to run," said Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman, who is a top adviser to Joe Biden and goes back far enough to identify himself as a Daniello partisan in that primary of long ago.

The members of the Democrats' Ivy League have moved methodically either to defeat or scare off multi-termed Republicans or to win open races. They have left Republican Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr. alone, because there is no sense in running for a lateral post, and they seem content to wait for Castle to retire in a term or so.

No wonder the Democratic officeholders are poised to turn on one another. They have run out of Republicans to run against.

The Republicans should have such a problem. Their party is in such a depleted condition that it is begging for credentialed candidates to run for the open governorship and other statewide offices. It is likely another reason that the Democrats seem willing to take one another on -- because they do not think the Republicans have the firepower to feast on the fallout.

An unknown is whether any Democratic infighting would change the calculus by being so vicious and unforgiving that it would drive voters to the Republicans.

Glenn C. Kenton, a Republican strategist who was the secretary of state for Gov. du Pont, suggests to his party's regret that a Carney-Markell race would not, because it is unlikely to have a polarizing effect on the state's general electorate and dissuade it from its inclination to vote Democratic.

"Are the candidates going to be forever bitter with each other? Will the party regulars be? I don't think so. Will it have a marked impact on the outcome of the election? I think that's no," Kenton said.

James R. Soles, a political scientist retired from the University of Delaware, had a similar view. "The best reason for the two candidates to run an exemplary campaign is, whoever loses can be looking at another statewide run two or four years later. If it's too nasty, they can't," he said.

Carney's second term as lieutenant governor is up in 2008, and he will be out of politics if he is not elected to something else. Markell will be in the middle of his third term as treasurer and does not have to resign to run.

They came close last month to dodging their conflict. With Carper as the primary mediator, Markell nearly blinked, indicating his readiness to drop back and run for lieutenant governor, as long as it did not land him in another primary.

Denn and Theodore Blunt, the Democratic president of the Wilmington Council, both already were pointed at lieutenant governor, and while Denn agreed to clear out of Markell's way, Blunt did not. The deal was off.

It left the Democrats looking at primaries for governor and lieutenant governor and an epitaph for the politics of taking turns.