Delaware Leaders Ponder Possible Senate Vacancy

Posted August 25, 2008 at 4:27pm

As Delaware’s delegation comes to grips with literally and figuratively being moved to the forefront of this week’s Democratic National Convention, the state’s political world is also buzzing with speculation about who might replace newly named vice-presidential selection Joseph Biden in the Senate.

“Rumors are everywhere,” Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) said at the state party’s Monday morning breakfast, where delegates were already wearing some of the first Obama-Biden ‘08 T-shirts. Minner — herself sporting an “America’s Team” button with pictures of presumptive presidential nominee Barack Obama and Biden on it — described the situation as “a bouncing ball up in the air that no one has a handle on yet.”

But it appears the state does have at least a little time to figure out its succession plans.

According to Delaware law, Biden can remain on the ballot for his Senate seat while running for vice president, a situation akin to 2004 when Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID) did the same thing in Connecticut while he was Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) running mate. Minner said Monday that she doesn’t believe that Biden will resign from the Senate before the November election. That means that if Biden wins re-election to Congress in November but loses his vice-presidential bid, he can simply return to the Senate.

But if Biden wins both bids, the situation gets a bit more complicated.

If the need arises, the governor of Delaware is responsible for appointing a replacement for an open Senate seat until a special election can be held. If elected to both positions, Biden wouldn’t have to relinquish his Senate seat until he is sworn in on Inauguration Day, which falls on Jan. 20, 2009. That date also happens to be the last day in office for Minner, the outgoing governor.

But while the duty of appointing Biden’s successor could conceivably fall to Delaware’s next governor, it appears much more likely that Minner and Biden would work out a situation before she leaves office, perhaps as soon as the days just after the November election.

As for who would actually get that appointment, conventional wisdom has long been that Biden’s son, Beau Biden, who serves as state attorney general, would one day replace his father in the Senate. But that situation is also complicated.

Beau Biden’s Army JAG unit is scheduled to deploy to Iraq this fall for a yearlong tour. And though Delaware delegates to the DNC said Monday that Beau Biden’s deployment doesn’t necessarily take him off the table for the Senate post, it does open up several more possibilities.

Minner could appoint a placeholder, to hold the job until a 2010 special election, in which Beau Biden, coming off an overseas deployment, could make a very attractive candidate. And that move might also set the stage for a major political showdown in Delaware if former governor and longtime GOP Rep. Mike Castle decides to toss his hat into the ring for the Senate job.

Or Minner could give another Democrat, a leg up by appointing him to the Senate seat ahead of a special election race.

Two close associates of Minner that Delaware political insiders were tossing around as possible Senate appointees were Secretary of State Harriet Smith Windsor and Bob Byrd, a former state Representative and chairman of the Delaware state Economic and Financial Advisory Council (a position he was appointed to by Minner in 2001).

Meanwhile the man that Minner has endorsed to replace her as governor, Lt. Gov. John Carney (D), is in a primary race this September with state Treasurer Jack Markell. So if Carney lost his primary, he would be expected to be in the running for the Senate job.

Sam Latham, a Delaware delegate and president of the state’s AFL-CIO, said he hopes that the appointment goes to somebody young who could potentially devote many years to the Senate job and rise up to seniority and prominence in the way that Joseph Biden — who ran for the office at age 29 — did. “I think we need to promote our young people,” Latham said.

Minner said “there are lots of people who are interested” and plenty more who are willing to offer advice about the potential opening.

But for now at least, Minner seems content to enjoy the massive amount of attention that Biden’s rise has brought her little state.

“It’s exciting for a small state like Delaware,” Minner said. “Joe has really put us on the map.”

In Denver, he has also put the state on the convention hall floor.

After Biden was tapped by Obama, convention planners moved the First State’s delegation from an upper level seating assignment to a spot directly in front of the podium and right next to the Illinois delegation.

“They took us from the nosebleed section to the front row,” Latham said.

State party president John Daniello told delegates at Monday’s breakfast meeting that Biden’s selection as vice president also means that the state’s delegates have a greater responsibility this week in Denver.

“Each of us now are not just ambassadors of the state, we’re also ambassadors for the nominee,” he said.

Daniello also took a moment to marvel at the several media members who showed up Monday to cover what is usually a fairly routine first day of convention breakfast.

“It’s our six minutes of fame,” Daniello said.