Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) announced Tuesday that he’s running for Vice President Joe Biden’s former Senate seat in Delaware, instantly giving Republicans an opportunity to pick up a seat that’s been in Democratic control for decades.
Castle’s decision sets up the likelihood of a marquee Senate matchup against state Attorney General Beau Biden, the vice president’s son, who just returned home from a yearlong tour of duty in Iraq. The seat is currently held by Sen. Ted Kaufman, a Democrat and longtime Biden staffer appointed by former Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner who has said he will not run in 2010.
The special election will be held next November, with the winner serving out the remaining four years of the term.
Persuading the 70-year-old Castle to run for the Senate had become a top priority for national Republican recruiters in recent months. Castle kept his intentions close to the vest but said that he decided to announce for the race after sensing a groundswell of support from constituents across the state during the August recess.
He said he made his final decision nine days ago after getting the go-ahead from his wife, Jane — and based on the fact that he needed to begin raising money for a nationally watched contest that’s going to cost millions of dollars.
“I’ve been thinking about this for some time, ever since it was obvious Joe was going to be leaving the Senate. And as I went through my various meetings — town halls, all the different events and talking to so many people — I realized there was a lot of support for doing this,” Castle said in his announcement speech at a Wilmington train station.
“It has never been more important for Delaware to have the strongest and most experienced leadership to represent us in Washington. We are best served by an experienced, independent voice, and that is why I am announcing my intention to run for the United States Senate.”
Republican operatives viewed Castle as the only GOP candidate able to pick up the seat, which has been in Democratic hands since Biden first won it in 1972. Castle, a nine-term congressman and former governor, has never lost a political race since he was elected to the Delaware state House in 1966 — and he sports high approval ratings.
Castle’s decision is a major recruiting victory for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is now playing offense in a host of solidly Democratic states. The party now has landed leading candidates for the Illinois and Delaware seats vacated by President Barack Obama and Biden and also has promising opportunities against Democratic senators in Connecticut, Nevada and Colorado — all states that Obama carried in last year’s presidential election.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the chairman of the NRSC, said Castle’s decision “instantly transforms Delaware into one of the most competitive Senate races in the country in 2010.”
After Castle’s announcement, the Rothenberg Political Report changed its rating of the Delaware Senate race from being a safe Democratic seat to leaning toward a Republican takeover.
“Congressman Castle is extremely popular in Delaware and will be a formidable candidate for the GOP. This is a huge recruiting win for the NRSC and underscores our side’s current reading of the political tea leaves about the 2010 election,” said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. “This moves Delaware to the top of the list for GOP takeover opportunities.”
Castle’s political success is rooted in his centrist voting record in Congress. A leader of the Tuesday Group of moderate Republicans, Castle has split with his party on major issues, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and spoken out against former President George W. Bush’s plans to restrict federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
He was one of just three House Republicans to vote for all six bills in the Democrats’ “100 Hour” legislation, when the party took control of Congress in 2007.
“He’s had a very charmed career, through a lot of hard work and constituent service. And he’s not a guy you can pin down ideologically,” said Mike Hudome, a Delaware-based Republican media strategist. “Delaware’s a great state to run in because it’s small and you get to know everyone. It’s easy to get around.”
The biggest remaining question is whether Democrats will be able to land Beau Biden, who has been expected to run for his father’s old Senate seat. One senior Democratic operative said Biden is planning on running — a candidacy that would pit two of the state’s best-known politicians against each other.
At his news conference, Castle said that he has a close working relationship with the Biden family but doesn’t expect that relationship to dissuade Beau Biden from challenging him in the Senate race.
Biden could also wait until 2014 to run for the Senate, when the seat would be up again — and if Castle wins the November special election, he will be viewed by Delaware insiders as unlikely to run for another full six-year term in 2014.
“Beau has his youth, which I’ll envy, and he has his service in the National Guard, which is very admirable. And his record as AG and, obviously, the Biden name, so he obviously has a lot of assets,” Castle said at his news conference. “I would expect whoever runs on the other side will raise a lot of money and conduct a lot of advertising. And we’ll have to do the same.”
Democratic strategists are still confident about their ability to hold the seat, given the state’s strong Democratic underpinnings: It gave Obama 63 percent of the vote and hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.
They point to the state’s 2000 Senate race pitting longtime Republican Sen. William Roth, who held high approval ratings back home, against the state’s popular Democratic governor, Tom Carper. Carper handily won with 56 percent and hinted the Senate was ready for new leadership with his campaign theme: A Senator for Our Future.
“Mike Castle ran his first campaign in 1966. After four decades in politics, it is clear which direction Mike Castle wants to move Delaware and the country,” said Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “This will be a race about who is positioned to lead Delaware into the future, and Democrats fully intend to hold onto the vice president’s seat.”
A Rasmussen Reports survey conducted last month showed Castle with an early but narrow lead in a prospective matchup against Biden, with both politicians garnering very strong approval ratings. The poll showed Castle leading Biden by 5 points, 47 percent to 42 percent. Both candidates held approval ratings above 60 percent, according to the survey.
Beau Biden won his first statewide election as attorney general in 2006 with 52 percent of the vote — the same year Castle won reelection with 57 percent.
Castle also starts with $861,000 in his House campaign account at the end of June. But Biden would have little trouble raising money from national Democratic donors, particularly given that the race would have newfound importance for the White House.
“I have a lot of respect for Mike Castle. He has held a long and sometimes overstated career in public service. However, Delaware Democrats have held this Senate seat for 37 years, and we have no intentions of giving it up now,” said John Daniello, chairman of the Delaware Democratic Party.
Castle’s decision has a silver lining in it for Democrats, who now are favored to win the congressman’s House seat. The state’s former lieutenant governor, John Carney, has been one of the party’s top fundraisers so far.
But Republicans are not ceding the race, and they believe they have a shot at the open-seat House race. State Rep. Tom Kovach and businessman Anthony Wedo are the two leading Republicans considering campaigns.