Delaware Senate: Race Is Turned Upside Down by Castle’s Entry

October 12, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

Count me as at least moderately surprised that Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) announced on Tuesday that he will run for the remaining four years of now-Vice President Joseph Biden’s Senate term.

Castle, who served eight years as Delaware’s governor, from 1985 to 1993, has had plenty of opportunities to run for the Senate. Each time, he took a pass, even though Republican strategists drooled at the thought that he might be a candidate.

But when the Congressman, who turned 70 earlier this year, announced his Senate candidacy, he turned a layup for Democrats into an exceedingly competitive contest, assuming that state Attorney General Beau Biden (D) enters the race.

Castle “spent his entire summer moving up and down the state and talking to people,” said one GOP insider close to the Congressman. “He loves Delaware. He loves policy. He likes to campaign. It’s what he does. So in the end, I wasn’t shocked.”

Castle is the only Republican in the state who could give the GOP a chance of winning the Senate seat, currently occupied by appointed Sen. Ted Kaufman (D), who was widely seen as a place holder for Beau Biden, the son of the vice president.

Castle was first elected to the state House in 1966. Since then, he has served in the state Senate, as lieutenant governor (under Republican Gov. Pete du Pont), as governor and, since 1993, as Delaware’s lone Congressman. That means that he has run statewide 12 times during the past 30 years.

Castle won re-election (admittedly against nominal opposition) 61 percent to 38 percent last year and 57 percent to 39 percent in 2006 — two of the worst election cycles in recent memory for Republicans.

Still, there is no doubt that Delaware, once regarded as a swing state, has swung reliably into the Democratic column. The state has gone Democratic in the past five races for governor, president and Senate, and Democrats hold solid majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature. Castle and state Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr. are the only Republicans elected statewide.

A press release from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee issued minutes after Castle’s announcement shows a number of lines of attack that the party will direct at the Congressman.

After noting Castle’s “four decades in politics,” the release hit the Congressman for having “built-up a record of supporting … George Bush’s economic policies, including tax cuts for the super-wealthy, that drove Delaware’s economy into a ditch — and now won’t support any of the Obama-Biden plans to fix it.”

Democrats hope to portray Castle as the past and Beau Biden, 40, as the future, something they did at least somewhat successfully in 2000, when then-Gov. Tom Carper (D) defeated longtime Sen. Bill Roth (R).

Efforts to paint Castle as an extension of George W. Bush, however, won’t be easy, since the Congressman is widely regarded as one of the few moderate Republicans left in the House.

As CQ’s Politics in America 2010 notes, Castle “was one of only three House Republicans to vote for all six of the new Democratic majority’s signature bills at the start of the 110th Congress,” and he has supported embryonic stem cell research, Amtrak reauthorization and legislation to combat global warming.

Beau Biden has far less political experience and demonstrated vote-getting ability than Castle.

Beau Biden worked as a federal prosecutor before joining a Wilmington law firm in 2004. Two years later, he ran for Delaware attorney general, winning narrowly, 53 percent to 47 percent. A member of the Army National Guard, he recently returned from a tour in Iraq and has not yet announced his political plans.

Since Delaware’s attorney general is up for election next year, Beau Biden would be risking his current office by jumping into a difficult Senate race against Castle.

Democratic insiders acknowledge that Castle will be a formidable nominee and they hope that Beau Biden will run for the seat, even though a loss to Castle would be embarrassing to the vice president.

“If Beau doesn’t run and Republicans win the seat, the vice president hasn’t saved himself from embarrassment,” one Democrat argued, noting that the national media certainly would take note of a Republican victory regardless of whether the Democratic nominee was named Biden.

“Ultimately, the pressure is on Joe to produce the strongest possible candidate to save the seat,” agreed one Republican observer with extensive knowledge of the state’s politics. “And that means Beau Biden.”

Republicans now have credible candidates in both President Barack Obama’s former Illinois Senate seat and Biden’s Senate seat, and the uneven track record for the incumbent party in similar cases has to be a cause for concern among party strategists (See Obama, Biden Seats in Danger?, July 29).

Both Castle and Biden are likely to be well-funded, as outside groups certainly would spend heavily on the race in the expensive Philadelphia and inexpensive Salisbury, Md., media markets.

It would be easy to rate the Delaware Senate race as a tossup, and that certainly would not be an unreasonable place to put it. But Castle begins ahead in the early polling conducted on a hypothetical Castle-Biden contest, and the overall cycle currently looks to favor the GOP nationally. Moreover, until Biden actually announces his candidacy, he could still decide against taking on Castle.

Even given the state’s Democratic bent, that’s enough reason to give Castle a slight edge. And that’s more than enough reason to give the DSCC indigestion and the vice president’s office a severe migraine.