Can Carney be topped in Delaware governor race?

DOVER — U.S. Rep. John Carney is considered the heavy favorite to be elected Delaware’s next governor in November, continuing the state’s 24-year span of Democratic chief executives.

Whether he is facing state Sen. Colin Bonini or former state trooper Lacey Lafferty in the fall, he will carry a 130,000-voter edge, name recognition and a sizable war chest.

That means the Republican candidate will face a monumental task in trying to pull off an upset, observers say.

Thanks to his time both as an elected official and as a government administrator, Rep. Carney is firmly backed by the state’s Democratic establishment.

Rep. Carney has been routinely praised by top Democratic officials: No less a figure than Vice President Joe Biden has called him the next governor of Delaware.

Rep. John Carney, D-Del., used the opportunity of the MilCon breakfast to call on Congress to pass a bipartisan budget. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

John C. Carney Jr.

Even some Republicans concede their nominee will be an underdog.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat who employed the congressman as deputy chief of staff and secretary of finance during his tenure as governor, gushed as he shared his thoughts.

“John Carney is everything that a leader should be and leadership is the most important ingredient in the success of any enterprise,” he said. He praised him as a “unifier” with the “heart of a servant.”

Rep. Carney, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2010, has already made one unsuccessful bid for the state’s top office. But the circumstances of his defeat eight years ago are very different from this time around.

“He doesn’t really have to do a lot to win,” said University of Delaware professor Paul Brewer, director of the institution’s Center for Political Communication.

After eight years as lieutenant governor in the administration of Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the now-congressman lost a narrow and occasionally bitter 2008 primary to then-State Treasurer Jack Markell by less than 2,000 votes — despite being endorsed by the state Democratic Party. The treasurer went on to win election in the general election and was re-elected in 2012.

Because Gov. Markell is term-limited, speculation about his successor has existed for years. In the spring of 2014, then-Attorney General Beau Biden declared he planned to run for governor. His death last year from from brain cancer left a void and created an opportunity for another Democrat to step in.

Rep. Carney eventually announced his intention to seek the office, while noting he would have been happy to support Mr. Biden had he been able to run.

In 2008, Lt. Gov. Carney and Mr. Markell began campaigning more than a year before the primary election, engaging in debates and releasing policy proposals over a course of many months.

Gov. Jack Markell attended the ribbon cutting for the new Greater Dover Boys & Girls Club New Burton Road on Wednesday. (Special to The Delaware State News/Jon Lloyd Jr.)

Gov. Jack Markell

That’s in contrast to this cycle, where Rep. Carney has largely stayed out of the spotlight since his September announcement. His website was a barebones one and contained a statement that he did not plan to begin “an active gubernatorial campaign until next year” as recently as earlier this month.

For his part, Rep. Carney believes he has been visible. He has been participating in parades and other ceremonial events and said he has met with many civic and business organizations to hear Delawareans’ concerns.

“Maybe not campaigning in the way that they would define it but certainly I consider listening to the people that I want to represent as an important part of leadership and an important part of a campaign,” he said earlier this month after he officially filed for governor.

But some, including leading Republicans, disagree.

Senate Minority Leader F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said he has barely seen him downstate. House Minority Leader Daniel Short, R-Seaford, said he was surprised Rep. Carney was not more visible, although he noted Sen. Bonini has also not campaigned heavily.

High-ranking lawmakers said Rep. Carney did not, despite his status as the frontrunner, reach out to propose ideas or push an agenda in the General Assembly.

That, said Senate President Pro Tempore Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, is not a surprise or a complication.

“It would be much closer to November or even after the election before John would seriously talk about that. That wouldn’t be his style,” she said, noting he has continued his work in the House.

Rep. Carney himself said much of his focus has remained on his Congress until recently.

Demographics, experience and opposition

Although he said he believes the Democrat has not demonstrated the leadership necessary to sway voters, state GOP Chairman Charlie Copeland acknowledged the Republican nominee will have a challenge.

“It’s tough in Delaware, 22 percent of the state being African-American and the African-American vote being 95 percent Democratic,” he said. “Imagine if the white vote was 95 percent one way. There would be more soul-searching. I mean, it would just be so bizarre.”

Rep. Carney is likely to face Sen. Bonini in the general election, with the senator holding the backing of more mainstream, establishment Republicans. He was endorsed by the Delaware Republican convention in April.

Ms. Lafferty remains confident, however, and has blasted Sen. Bonini on Twitter, calling him “lazy” and a “buffoon.”

Sen. Colin Bonini

Sen. Colin Bonini

For his part, the senator has dismissed her as “fringe candidate.”

Rep. Carney will avoid a primary this time around. Democrat Kevin Tinsley, a political newcomer, filed for governor the day before the deadline but withdrew less than 24 hours later.

Gov. Markell is unconcerned the governor’s race has contained fewer policy ideas and large-scale discussions at this point in comparison to 2008.

“I think people will look at his experience, the kind of representative he’s been in Washington, his knowledge of state government and I think they’ll say he’s incredibly well-prepared to be governor and to be effective,” he said of Rep. Carney.

An October 2014 survey by the Center for Political Communication found 48 percent of Delawareans view Rep. Carney in a positive light, versus 18 percent who have an unfavorable opinion of him.

A lot of factors are in Rep. Carney’s favor, said Dr. Brewer, who conducted the survey.

While Congress has an approval rating in the mid-teens, Dr. Brewer said people generally are much more supportive of their individual representatives and senators. Rep. Carney also has strong name recognition and a powerful edge as the Democratic candidate in a blue state.

Sam Hoff, the George Washington distinguished professor of history and political science at Delaware State University, said he expects Rep. Carney to garner at least 60 percent of the vote in the general election. Gov. Markell received at least 68 percent in the past two elections, and only once since 1992 has the Democratic candidate for governor pulled in less than 59 percent.

Asked what has to happen for a Republican to pull off an upset, Dr. Hoff quipped, “About 500,000 Republicans move in from somewhere else.”

He predicted Sen. Bonini will win the GOP nomination, with Lacey Lafferty ending up with 10 to 20 percent of the vote in the primary.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

The fact Sen. Bonini has not been heavily campaigning over the past months does hinder the GOP’s efforts a bit, as do Gov. Markell’s popularity and the assertion “most people are probably better off than they were eight years ago” in Delaware benefits Rep. Carney, Dr. Hoff said.

While there could be trickle-down from the presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, Dr. Hoff is skeptical of the ultimate impact that would have on the gubernatorial contest.

Sen. Bonini, who has served 22 years in the state Senate, might be able to lean on several key issues, such as relief for Delaware’s struggling casino industry and the Markell administration’s controversial decision to take in Syrian refugees.

Both leading candidates have legislative records that opponents can point to, while the two candidates themselves can cite their experience.

Former Gov. and U.S. Rep. Mike Castle, the last Republican to serve in each of those roles for Delaware, is backing Sen. Bonini.

“First of all, he’s got to make his mark in New Castle County where two-thirds of the population is and where obviously he’s not as known as in Kent,” he said.

Any Republican running statewide, especially when solid Democrat turnout is expected, has to attract independent voters and even Democrats to win.

“No Republican candidate is going to get elected just by Republicans. The numbers aren’t there,” Mr. Castle said.

Michael Castle

Michael Castle

At the campaign kickoff earlier this month, Sen. Bonini indicated he will be an alternative to decades of Democratic control, casting Rep. Carney as very similar to Govs. Markell, Minner and Carper.

“Delawareans are ready for change, and just be as blunt as I can be, our state government is broken, and Delawareans are suffering. And I think people are going to have that realization between now and November,” he said.

The state, he has said, needs “an election, not a coronation.”

That’s very similar to a stance taken by the good government advocacy group Common Cause Delaware.

Claire Snyder-Hall, program director for the group, said it is “unhealthy” to have a race where the outcome might appear to be almost predestined.

“It’s important to have competitive races for healthy democracy because when you don’t, it decreases accountability,” she said.

The University of Delaware will host a debate between the candidates for governor on Oct. 19, perhaps the first chance for voters to see Rep. Carney and his opponent side-by-side.

The general election is Nov. 8.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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