Blunt Rochester, Reigle battle for open seat in U.S. House

DOVER — Since the 1976 election, Delaware’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives has been without an incumbent running just three times.

In 1992, Rep. Tom Carper and Gov. Mike Castle made their famous swap, setting up the two-term governor to get elected to Congress.

In 2010, after Rep. Castle opted to run for the U.S. Senate, former Lt. Gov. John Carney successfully campaigned for the office.

This year, Rep. Carney is seeking the governorship, leaving the Congressional seat up for grabs.

vote-logo-2016Seeking to fill it are Democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester and Republican Hans Reigle, as well as Green Party candidate Mark Perri and Libertarian Scott Gesty.

In a state with five registered Democrats for every three Republicans, many view the Democratic primary, effectively, as the election.

In that primary, Ms. Blunt Rochester outpolled five other candidates, including state Sen. Bryan Townsend and 2014 treasurer nominee Sean Barney, for the party nod in her first bid for elected office.

A September poll from the University of Delaware gave Ms. Blunt Rochester a 46-26 edge in Nov. 8’s general election, lending more credence to the idea she is the frontrunner.

But Mr. Reigle, whose elective experience consists of time on the Wyoming Town Council and as town mayor, sees it differently. He believes he’s putting up more a fight than some expected and disregards the UD poll, saying results that have him losing Kent and Sussex counties must be inaccurate.

Lisa Blunt-Rochester

Lisa Blunt Rochester

Sussex, which has more registered Republicans than Democrats, is the most likely among the three counties to go for Mr. Reigle. But even if he wins Sussex and Kent, he could still lose by double-digits.

In the 2014 Senate race, Republican Kevin Wade won the two southernmost counties by about 8,000 votes combined, but lost New Castle by nearly 40,000, giving Chris Coons a solid victory.

Mr. Reigle’s goal is to dominate in Kent and Sussex, do well in most of New Castle and then be competitive in Wilmington.

In 2014, Republican treasurer nominee Ken Simpler collected two-thirds of the vote in Sussex, a little less than 60 percent in Kent and about 45 percent in New Castle. While he lost in the most populous county, it was tight enough, and his margin downstate large enough, to make him the first non-incumbent Republican elected statewide since 1994.

Hans Reigle

Hans Reigle

“So we want to be really strong down here. Really get the Rs out,” Mr. Reigle said, specifically citing Mr. Simpler’s plan.

Ms. Blunt Rochester, for her part, is not taking it for granted.

Issues

The two major party candidates stand in sharp contrast on many subjects, from government spending to immigration.

Mr. Reigle has described the government as too large and influential, hurting economic growth. Reducing regulations, altering or outright repealing the Affordable Care Act and cutting federal spending by 2 percent would go a long way toward lifting the burden off taxpayers, he believes.

The problem, Mr. Reigle said, is to “a lot of people, government is a good thing.”

His comments on government call to mind former President Ronald Reagan. Preaching against “welfare queens,” the president blasted a system he said perpetuated poverty and led to people living off the government rather than seeking employment.

Ms. Blunt Rochester believes government should play a larger role in creating jobs and supporting the needy.

While Mr. Reigle is in favor of allowing former police officers or military members who now work in schools to carry firearms, Ms. Blunt Rochester supports more gun control.

At a forum last week, she said “gun violence is one of the biggest challenges we’re facing right now and the last thing we need is guns in a classroom.”

The two candidates greatly differ on immigration as well. Saying the United States was founded by immigrants, Ms. Blunt Rochester has said she believes the country needs to be welcoming and she is in favor of making Delaware a sanctuary state.

Sanctuary policies prohibit police from deporting illegal, or undocumented, immigrants. Supporters say they build trust between communities with many immigrants and law enforcements and prevent police from becoming an arm of federal immigration services.

But to Mr. Reigle, they are dangerous provisions that are unfair to Delawareans.

He supports Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, even though the congressional candidate said he has “lost some friends” over the issue. Ms. Blunt Rochester, in contrast, insists comments by Mr. Trump are contributing to divisiveness and unrest around the world.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t say I was really disappointed in how Donald Trump has talked about women,” Ms. Blunt Rochester said. “I think that saddens me. And what is more concerning is not just the talk but what the impact of that could be on things such as the Supreme Court.”

Mr. Reigle counters that electing Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, would hurt the nation.

Discussion over Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton has dominated discussion with voters, to the point where it overshadows other issues, Mr. Reigle said.

Lisa Blunt Rochester

Were it not for a sudden injury that resulted in the death of a loved one two years ago, Ms. Blunt Rochester probably wouldn’t be running.

His husband, Charles, ruptured his Achilles tendon in 2014 and died from blood clots — “a freak accident,” Ms. Blunt Rochester said with emotion in her voice.

“That totally changed everything for me,” she relayed. “It wasn’t like I said, ‘Now it’s time to run for office.’ It was a whole year of just being very sad and questioning. ‘Why are we here? What is this about? Why did that happen?’

“I’ve told this story, and some of it is maybe cathartic for me, but I remember standing in line at the supermarket, just kind of on autopilot. There was a father and three kids in front of me, and he had to put back this bunch of grapes that cost $9.

“And, I don’t know, it just hit me, like, ‘I’m blessed. I’m fortunate. I have a home, I have a family, I can get a counselor. But there are so many people out here in our state that are just surviving.’”

A native Wilmingtonian, she was driven, she said, by the problems the state and the nation face.

“I just said, you know, ‘I can’t sit back. I have to step up. I have the ability to step up, and I have to do it,’” she said.

The daughter of longtime Wilmington City Councilman Theodore Blunt, she spent years working for Tom Carper, first in his congressional office and then in his cabinet.

Starting as an intern to Rep. Carper, she stuck with his congressional office as a case worker and was named deputy secretary of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services in 1993 after he was elected governor. In 1998, she became secretary of labor, a position she has termed her “dream job.”

“For some reason, I look at the trajectory of my career, and it’s always been about jobs and the economy,” Ms. Blunt Rochester said. “I started off with the county doing summer youth employment programs. I helped get kids jobs, whether they had disabilities or whether it was based on need, income.

“And then I did welfare reform and worked on helping people get into jobs. Then I was labor — jobs. … And there’s something about people being able to live their purpose that to me connects to everything else. It connects to your ability to own a home, it connects to your mental health status and whether you even go on drugs. It’s connected to our criminal justice system right now.”

As state personnel director, she led a 2001 investigation into the Delaware State Police over alleged discrimination.

After the Office of State Personnel was merged with other state agencies in 2005, Ms. Blunt Rochester served as CEO of the nonprofit Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, published a book and was a fellow at the University of Massachusetts Boston. During part of that time, she lived in China.

Delaware is one of two states that has never sent a woman or an African-American to Congress, meaning Ms. Blunt Rochester would make history if she wins.

She is backed by EMILY’s List, a group that works to elect pro-choice Democratic women and has helped raise her profile.

Ms. Blunt Rochester said she has emphasized positivity in her campaign, something she believes has resonated with voters.

“I think it’s time to heal the land,” she said.

Hans Reigle

When he publicly declared his run in April 2015, Mr. Reigle was expecting to face Rep. Carney.

The calculus changed when former Attorney General Beau Biden, who had intended to run for governor, died in May 2015, eventually leading Rep. Carney to seek the state’s top job.

The son of an American father and German mother, Mr. Reigle grew up in Kent County. He entered the U.S. Air Force after high school, serving for 20 years and earning the rank of major.

Mr. Reigle then worked for United Airlines and Delaware State University. At DSU, he helped run the university’s aviation program, even serving as director for a time before leaving to run for Congress.

The former chairman of the Kent County Republican Party, he said he was approached to run for the House in 2014 but declined, feeling there was not enough time.

With support from Republicans like Mike Castle, the former congressman and governor, Mr. Reigle entered the race hoping to unseat an incumbent Democrat, bolstered by Mr. Simpler’s victory.

Defeating Rep. Carney “was a really high hill,” Mr. Reigle said, but his chances received a boost after the Democrat decided to seek another office.

As a Republican, he will likely be in the majority in the House if he is elected. Delaware’s congressman has been in the minority caucus the past 10 years.

Mr. Reigle said he can give Delaware “a seat at the table” thanks to his party affiliation, and although Delaware’s two senators are both Democrats, Mr. Reigle expects to work well with them.

An experienced pilot with a passion for flight, Mr. Reigle hopes to work on aviation-related issues if he is elected.

“If I am fortunate enough to go to Congress, right out of the gate I’ll probably be the most experienced aviation guy on Capitol Hill, out of all 535,” he said.

Ardently opposed to higher government spending, he has been quick to note the total national debt has increased over the past eight years. Some sources say it has almost doubled from about $10.5 trillion as of the 2008 election.

Mr. Reigle is also critical of inefficiencies in the government and supports policies designed to get people off welfare and to work.

“I can’t stand waste,” he said. “I think people that need a hand-up should get it but everything has its limits. We just don’t have that much money in America.”

Final days

As of Oct. 19, Ms. Blunt Rochester had outraised Mr. Reigle $1.4 million to $209,000. Her efforts are bolstered by self-loans of $465,000.

She used TV ads effectively in the primary and could do the same in the general election.

Whether Delaware sends its first Republican to Congress in six years, or elects a woman and an African-American for the first time, will be decided Tuesday.

Both candidates say, regardless of the result, they’ve enjoyed running: Mr. Reigle called campaigning “so eye-opening but so rewarding,” and Ms. Blunt Rochester said it “has brought my joy back.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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