Posted: Sept. 22, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Name recognition is one of those advantages incumbents rely on to get themselves re-elected. Ha! Not this time.

If there were a Candidate Protection Program, like the federal Witness Protection Program, to let officeholders change their identity and reappear as someone else, a lot of them would be giving it serious thought.

They are scared.

When they saw Mike Castle go down in the Republican primary for the Senate, their own political lives passed before their eyes. Mike Castle! It would have been only slightly less astonishing if he had been abducted by space aliens.

It led the Delaware political class to the inescapable conclusion, the only thing it has to fear is the electorate itself. Uh-oh.

"The tea party represents a restlessness in the entire electorate and the utter disdain for the politicians," said Bill Lee, who is a recovering politician himself. He left a perfectly good judgeship to make three tries as a Republican for governor.

Primary Day did not just take out Castle with his 30 years in statewide office as a lieutenant governor, governor and the longest-serving congressman in state history.

It also eliminated Mike Walsh, a Democrat who spent 30 years as the New Castle County sheriff, and Hazel Plant, a Democrat state representative from a Wilmington district that sent either her or her late husband Al to Dover for 34 of the last 36 years.

A bunch of long-time incumbents did win -- like George Bunting, a Democratic state senator in Sussex County, with a brawny 79 percent of the vote -- but still.

Incumbents are bracing themselves. Particularly if their tenure can be counted in dog years.

This could mean you, Tom Wagner.

He has been the Republican state auditor since 1989, when he was appointed to fill a vacancy and then won on his own the next year. Oh yeh, it was Governor Castle who appointed him.

Wagner is resolutely whistling past the political graveyard. "From my perspective, one of the few offices that isn't a problem is the auditor. I'm the one who has the working knowledge of state operations. The longer you've been there, the more you understand the job," he said.

This could mean you, too, Nancy Cook.

She has been a Democratic state senator since 1974, when she won a special election to replace her late husband, who represented the selfsame Kent County district since 1956. Not to mention her son Tom is the state finance secretary.

Cook intoned the Politician's Prayer. It is, "I'm out there working hard, touching base with the constituents of the district and listening to their concerns, as I always have done."

In the name of the Voter, the Contributor and the Secret Ballot. Amen.

Legislators up for election are checking the primary returns to see how Christine O'Donnell fared in their districts. The better she did, the more they think the local voters are working themselves into a throw-da-bums-out fury.

Joe Booth, a Republican state senator, thinks there could be something to that. He barely skated out of his primary with 51 percent of the vote in a western Sussex County district, the heart of O'Donnell territory, even though he is a conservative Republican state senator.

Booth is safe now, because he is unopposed in the general election, but he believes his fellow legislators have cause to worry.

"Particularly if they have a lot of patriots in their district."

Colin Bonini, a Republican state senator who is running for state treasurer while nestled securely in the middle of a four-year term, had the luxury to find the irony amid the peril.

"The challenger's position is, get rid of the incumbents, because I want to be one," Bonini quipped.

Politics, however, is nothing if not capricious. Look at John Brady. If ever someone looked endangered on Primary Day, it was Brady, the Sussex County recorder of deeds, who is rounding out 10 years in one row office or another.

Brady has had an awful time of it. He lost a race for insurance commissioner in 2008. He switched parties afterward from Republican to Democrat, so he had little opportunity to build up a base there. He had heart surgery. His private law practice plummeted. He declared bankruptcy. He is mourning the death of his partner.

Brady, of all people, won his primary. How can he explain it?

Two words. "I can't."