Posted: July 26, 2006; updated: July 27, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

There are two really glaring holes on the ballot as the filing deadline for candidates looms Friday. They are the spots where there ought to be opponents for state Treasurer Jack A. Markell and state Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr.

Those blanks may have as much to say about the state of politics here as they do about Markell, an aspiring Democrat looking beyond the bye he appears to have for a third term, and Wagner, a Republican reliable who was appointed in 1989 and has won five terms on his own since.

It means that the scramble for the next legion of super-politicians -- the ones craving storied careers that include time in the governorship and the Congress -- could be mostly over.

For the last four elections, newcomers in their 30s and 40s have been bursting into position any way they could, running for second-tier offices, elbowing aside incumbents, doing whatever it took for an eventual turn at the top.

After all, the current legionnaires -- so much a part of Delaware they can be identified simply as Joe and Tom and Mike -- cannot be around forever. Can they?

Markell came first, rapidly followed by Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., New Castle County Executive Christopher A. Coons and Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn.

Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III also is gunning to join the throng as he runs for attorney general this year on the Democratic ticket. His candidacy already drove three-term Republican M. Jane Brady to the bench, but the Republicans are mounting a ferocious campaign to stop him with Ferris W. Wharton.

The Republicans certainly need to do something. Like Biden, all of the others waiting in the wings are Democrats. The two statewide challengers the Republicans recruited this year -- Wharton and Jan C. Ting for the U.S. Senate -- are solid candidates, but no matter how they perform, they are in their 50s, not exactly the definition of up-and-comers.

Instead, the ranks of super-politicians belong to the officeholders who can set records in a state with a penchant for latching onto its leadership for a very long time, as the current class clearly shows.

Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr., elected at 29, has the state's longest tenure in the U.S. Senate. Republican Michael N. Castle, elected at 41 as lieutenant governor on his way to governor, holds the same mark in the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrat Thomas R. Carper, another 29-year-old when he started, has more statewide victories than anybody as treasurer, congressman, governor and senator.

The late U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. also had his place among them. A Republican who served 34 years on Capitol Hill, he set the record for longevity in statewide office, although Biden will pass him in January.

With no promising Republican willing to duke it out with Markell, with no ambitious Democrat settling on auditor just to get into the future political mix, the look of state politics for the next generation could be mostly set.

There still could be room for a pair of 43-year-old Republican legislators with the next governor's race in 2008 on their minds -- state House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith and state Sen. Charles L. Copeland -- and for U.S. Attorney Colm F. Connolly, a 41-year-old Republican, although his thoughts may be turning toward a federal judgeship.

"The ones holding office now are the first team, but if any of them move on, I don't think you'll have to take a deep breath to find others," said James R. Soles, a political scientist retired from the University of Delaware.

Democratic and Republican party officials still are searching for takers against Markell and Wagner, but the odds are not good for recruiting a high flier, even if they do find someone.

Still, it is not impossible. In fact, it is the way super-politicians are made, as anyone familiar with Carper's history knows. He came off the beach to run for treasurer when no other Democrat wanted it in 1976, and he was a late filer for U.S. representative in 1982.

If no one signs up by Friday, the parties have until Sept. 1 to fill vacancies on their ballots. Their more immediate concern, however, is they could be stuck with someone unwelcome to the party leadership jumping in.

For now, the elections for treasurer and auditor are not races to watch, but simply curiosities, leaving the 2006 focus on the combat for attorney general and on a handful of legislative seats that are in play.

The General Assembly is under split control -- with the Democrats holding a 13-8 edge in the state Senate and the Republicans running the state House of Representatives by a margin of 25-15 with one independent, who is retiring.

State Sen. John C. Still III, the Republican minority leader, is a realist who knows that his party, if it is to build a majority, undoubtedly is going to need more than one election cycle to do it. He is optimistic it can start the climb this time.

"The odds of us picking up three seats would be quite a challenge, but it would give us momentum going into '08," Still said.

As the campaign season opens, there are three key Senate races.

State Sen. David P. Sokola, a Pike Creek Valley Democrat, is defending his seat in a rematch with Republican Michael J. Ramone, who lost by 277 votes four years ago. The voter registration between Democrats and Republicans is virtually even, cheering the Republicans even though incumbent senators rarely lose.

State Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., an 81-year-old Clayton Democrat in fragile health, is also a prime target, but the registration favors his party and the Republicans are not helping their cause by fighting over who their candidate should be.

State Sen. Harris B. McDowell III, a Wilmington Democrat, has attracted a crowd of five opponents, all but two in his own party. Chief among them is Charles Potter Jr., a Democrat who sits on the City Council. The Republicans would love to capitalize on the Democratic disarray, but the district is 2-1 Democratic in registration.

The House has been fixated on this election ever since state Rep. Robert F. Gilligan, the Democratic minority leader, challenged his party at its convention last year to win "six in '06" and take over the majority.

State Rep. Clifford G. "Biff" Lee, the Republican majority whip, was confident his party would not be out of power -- "I'm not concerned about this six in '06" -- but he did acknowledge the Republicans were going to have to work to defend what they have, particularly the seat belonging to state Rep. Joseph G. DiPinto, who is retiring.

DiPinto, the respected co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, is a rare commodity -- a Republican who can win in Wilmington, a Democratic stronghold. He has spent 20 years in Dover, and his retirement has opened a floodgate for candidates.

The Democrats want to capture the seat as dearly as the Republicans want to keep it. Both parties are desperate to unite behind a candidate and avoid a destructive primary, but neither side has sorted out its field yet.

Five Democrats have filed, including City Councilman Gerald L. Brady, City Councilwoman Loretta Walsh and her stepson David I. Walsh. It appears unlikely that both Walshes will run, the evidence being the sprouting of campaign signs that coyly say "Walsh" without specifying which one.

"Typical city politics. This is like trying to figure out where the tornado is going to land," quipped state Sen. Anthony J. DeLuca, the Democratic majority whip whose district stretches in suburban New Castle County from Newark to Bear.

The Republicans also had a cattle call of candidates. Some of the more prominent possibilities were Republican National Committeewoman Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Rev. Christopher A. Bullock, Linda Harra, Gary C. Linarducci and Donald C. Mell.

Linarducci, a lawyer, emerged with the party's backing after days (and nights) of deliberations and filed for the office with a day to go before the deadline.

Another contested open seat is the one being vacated by state Rep. G. Wallace Caulk Jr., a Frederica Republican-turned-independent. Because the registration is even and the Republicans have a primary, the Democrats believe they have a shot at picking this one up, even though downstate voters generally prefer Republicans these days.

Other open seats -- three Republican and one Democratic -- are even less likely to change hands.

The Democrats also are trying to make a run at state Rep. William R. "Bobby" Outten, a first-term Republican from Harrington. They are going with Harrington Mayor Robert E. "Gene" Price Jr., although Price lost a primary when he wanted to be the Democratic candidate two years ago. Outten has the benefit of running as an incumbent on the Republican ticket.

Both parties are suffering in their efforts from a dearth of legislative candidates. Almost all of the 11 senators up for election are unopposed, and nearly half of the candidates in the 41 representative districts are, too.

"I guess people don't want this crazy job," Biff Lee, the House majority whip, said.