Castle May Benefit From Delaware’s Affection for Long Political Résumés

Posted August 26, 2010 at 10:24am

MIDDLETOWN, Del. — The Olde Tyme Peach Festival, an annual rite in this still quaint yet increasingly sprawling exurban town south of Wilmington, gives locals a chance not only to savor the summer fruit but also to sample this fall’s political fare.

Along with girls in peach-colored outfits and boys in football uniforms, candidates for state and federal office stride along the festival’s parade route, briskly working the crowds lining Broad and Main streets.

During last week’s festival, Sandy Dengler was busy collecting campaign stickers and slapping them on her pants to show how eagerly she was shopping for candidates.

While the homemaker, who is a newcomer to the First State, said she still had a lot of research ahead of her, she already knew something about Republican Rep. Mike Castle, who is seeking the Senate seat once held by Vice President Joseph Biden.

“He’s been here awhile,” Dengler said.

Castle, 71, boasts an extensive political résumé that goes back more than four decades to when he was first elected to the state House. He has since served in the state Senate and as lieutenant governor and governor before being elected to Congress in 1992.

Such a long government tenure is a liability elsewhere in the country in this volatile election year, with disgruntled voters eager to sweep out Capitol Hill incumbents. But in this compact three-county state, where retail campaigning is still in vogue and many voters know their lawmakers, political longevity remains a valued trait.

Sam Waltz, a public affairs specialist and longtime observer of Delaware politics, described the state as “an overgrown small town.”

“People expect to see their candidates and expect to know them,” he said at the peach festival.

One of a dying breed of moderate Republicans, Castle faces only tepid competition in the Sept. 14 primary against conservative Christine O’Donnell, who ran unsuccessfully against Biden in 2008. While O’Donnell has support from the tea party and has relentlessly attacked what she argues is Castle’s “liberal record,” O’Donnell has failed to gain much traction, in part because of reports of her personal financial problems.

In the general election, Castle must contend with a more spirited challenge. Democrat Chris Coons is the chief executive of New Castle County, which encompasses the state’s largest city, the heavily Democratic Wilmington. Coons stepped in after Beau Biden, the state’s attorney general and a son of the vice president, opted earlier this year not to take on Castle.

The Senate seat is held by Ted Kaufman, who was appointed after Joseph Biden assumed the vice presidency.

Even though Coons, 46, has sought to characterize Castle as a closet conservative who has been in office too long, recent polls still show him trailing the Republican by double digits.

Crossing Party Lines

Castle portrays himself as an independent-thinking politician in step with state voters who consistently support the Democratic ticket in presidential elections but are willing to mix it up in downballot races.

He has broken with his party on climate change legislation and a recent measure to provide more federal financial support for schools and state budgets. His campaign website barely mentions his political affiliation and emphasizes his bipartisanship.

In an interview, Castle said he was concerned about the rhetoric coming from some conservatives in his party and would not welcome polarizing figures such as former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the state to campaign for him.

“I do worry about some of the positions taken by the tea party and some outside the tea party,” he said. “I think the Republican Party needs to focus on what people want. People want good opportunities, good jobs, good finances, good education, good education practices. These are the basic things that people worry about on a daily basis, and sometimes we get distracted by some of these further-out positions on a variety of issues, such as taking away the Department of Education.”

Castle said that even though he considered Gingrich a friend, he was not eager to have the one-time Speaker by his side in the state during election season.

“I don’t necessarily think that it would help in Delaware, and I would think that Sarah Palin may not help in Delaware, either,” he said.

More helpful, he said, was the support of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), who introduced the Congressman at a fundraiser in New York recently, and former President George H.W. Bush, who is hosting a fundraiser for Castle in Maine this week.

Despite support from Bloomberg, Castle differed with the mayor on the divisive cultural issue of building an Islamic community center several blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City.

He said he understood Bloomberg’s position about it being a local zoning decision. At the same time, Castle added, “I think the sensitivities of putting it so close to what happened in New York and proudly addressing it that way is not something I think is in the best interest of America.”

“My own position is that I’d like to see them build it in another location,” he said.

A Matter of Age

A more subtle campaign issue is the generational divide between the candidates. Castle said the age difference is obliquely referred to with comments that he looks tired.

Age was a factor in the state’s 2000 Senate race, when GOP incumbent Sen. William Roth, who was 79 at the time, was unseated by now-Sen. Tom Carper (D).

But Castle noted that Roth collapsed during a public appearance during that campaign, underscoring a perception that he was not in good health.

Castle said he has been very active both in terms of voting in Washington and in hitting the campaign trail at home.

“I go to everything,” he said.

The bespectacled Congressman, who has a slightly slouching posture, comes across more as a mild-mannered aging professor than a polished politician in tune with the Internet age. Allan Loudell, a news anchor at radio station WDEL in Delaware, said Castle has a genuine quality that appeals to even those who disagree with him.

That quality was on display one recent August evening when Castle and his wife, Jane, dropped by an annual crab feast hosted by Lloyd “Billo” Hickman, who owns a horse farm and liquor store in Ocean View, a small community about a mile from the Atlantic coast. The couple quietly worked the locals, who were seated at picnic tables filled with plates piled high with crabs and corn on the cob.

“If you do call his office, he’ll get back to you. And that’s what I like about a politician,” said Hickman, who noted that he is a registered Democrat.

Brenda Bramble, a horse trainer who attended the crab feast, recalled that as governor Castle helped push a slots bill that she supported.

“He looks at both sides of a coin before he votes,” she said.

Ocean View Mayor Gordon Wood, a Republican, said Castle benefits from an axiom of Delaware politics: “You elect someone and then keep them until they go out feet first.”

But others would like to see that unwritten rule broken.

“I have no gripes with Castle; I just think it is time for him to go,” said Roman Cybak, a retired auto worker.

Coons: Peachy-Keen on Change

As he prepared to march in the peach festival parade, Coons said he hopes to capitalize on what he describes as the mood for change in Washington. While he said Castle’s age was not an issue, Coons noted that his opponent is a nine-term Congressman. Implementing reforms in Washington “will require someone who’s got a lot of energy,” Coons added.

Coons also said Obama’s sagging national approval rating does not hurt him in Delaware, where the president and vice president are still popular.

The Democratic candidate added that he won’t always agree with the current administration, but “I generally support their direction and agenda.” On the mosque issue, he said he hopes the center’s leaders will rethink the location. But he added, “At the end of the day, I’ll fight to the death for the right of people to worship peaceably wherever they want to in our country.”

Coons also said Castle has moved to the right in his voting record in recent years. Despite some notable breaks with his party, Castle has largely voted with fellow House Republicans against much of the Obama agenda, including the health care reform overhaul and the stimulus measures. Castle has said that Obama did not do enough to involve Republicans in crafting those measures.

But Mike Levering, a Middletown resident sporting a Coons sticker at the peach festival, said he was angry at Castle for opposing the health care reform bill. Even though he has voted for Castle in the past, Levering said he won’t support his Senate bid.

“I believe that Mr. Castle has lost his perspective on the needs of the people, and I strongly believe that our president has not been given a chance because he’s been undercut by every Republican that there is,” he said.

Castle has also angered some voters on the right, such as Cecile DiNozzi, the head of local First State Patriots. The group has ties to the tea-party movement and supports principles of conservative television commentator Glenn Beck.

DiNozzi called Castle “a nice fellow” who is “very liberal and not listening to his constituents.”

But many state politicians and analysts say the tea-party movement, along with the angry rhetoric and political polarization that is prevalent in other states, does not appear to have taken hold as much in Delaware.

Even though voters could elect a Republican to the Senate, a Democrat, former Lt. Gov. John Carney, is ahead in the polls to replace Castle in the House. Carney will face the winner of a Republican primary between Michele Rollins and Glen Urquhart.

Carney said politics in Delaware tends to be more civil, in part because people live close to each other.

“You’re much less likely to savage someone in a political ad when you’re going to see that person at a soccer game the next week,” he said.