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The Keys to the Castle

Congressman Rejects Retirement Rumors, Eyes Biden Senate Seat

Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) is preparing to run for a ninth House term, while simultaneously keeping an eye on Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.) and positioning himself to run for Senate should the Democratic presidential candidate opt for retirement.

Despite suffering a mild stroke in the fall, Castle’s political and Capitol Hill schedules at this point in the cycle, which include an active legislative agenda and a bevy of fundraisers both in Washington, D.C., and in Delaware, are consistent with those of his previous eight campaigns. Unperturbed by House Democrats’ plans to target him next year, Castle likely would run for Senate if Biden retired and is taking steps to launch such a campaign should the opportunity arise.

“Mike Castle never closes any door,” said Elizabeth Wenk, his deputy chief of staff.

Castle is Delaware’s at-large Congressman, and as such his campaigns are similar to Senate bids in that they are statewide operations. With $1.2 million in cash on hand and no campaign debt as of the end of 2006, running for Senate would not be that much of a stretch for the Republican, even though the state has trended Democratic in recent years.

The popular Castle has been running statewide in Delaware at least every four years since 1980, when he was elected lieutenant governor. He was elected governor in 1984 and 1988, before running for the House in 1992, where he has been ever since.

Because Delaware is a small state and big on retail politics, Castle is particularly well-known at home and has what is described as a personal relationship with many voters. The moderate Republican won re-election in November with 57 percent of the vote, which was down from the 69 percent he garnered in 2004 but still healthy given the GOP’s troubles nationally and in the state.

Mike Ratchford, a top adviser to Castle based in Delaware, said Democrats tell him that the Congressman’s approval and name identification ratings are near 70 percent in Democratic polls. Meanwhile, Wenk said Castle doesn’t fear Democratic plans to target him, explaining that “we like to say this seat is his until he decides to retire.”

However, the Democrats aren’t buying.

Castle is one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s top 2008 targets, as his seat is one of the eight remaining after November’s Democratic takeover of the House that still has a Republican Representative despite being won by the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004.

Democrats in Delaware claim part of the Republican’s charm — particularly in 2006 — was that he has not faced Democratic candidates who could match him in name recognition and fundraising ability. According to one well-placed Democratic operative based in Delaware, the state party actively is recruiting potential candidates who they believe could offer Castle a competitive race.

Dangling in front of these potential Democratic candidates, some of whom also are contemplating a run for governor and lieutenant governor, is the promise of money and operational support from the national party.

“There are discussions going on behind the scenes to lure someone off of our deep bench to run against Castle,” said this Democratic operative.

The DCCC, this individual continued, “has never put a dime into this seat. But they basically said we’re at the top of their target list if we can find them a viable candidate who can raise money.”

Lt. Gov. John Carney Jr. and state Treasurer Jack Markell are the Democrats most frequently mentioned as potential gubernatorial candidates in 2008. Possible Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor include state Insurance Commissioner Matthew Denn, Wilmington City Council President Theodore Blunt, Delaware Secretary of State Harriet Smith Windsor, and state Rep. Peter Schwartzkopf.

A DCCC spokeswoman was tight-lipped Monday on the committee’s strategy for ousting Castle, saying only that it already has sent a field operative to Delaware to talk with prospective candidates and state Democratic Party officials.

“This is definitely a priority for us,” DCCC Communications Director Jennifer Crider said. “He’s absolutely beatable.”

Quietly, Democrats are peddling the notion that Castle could be electorally vulnerable for health reasons, as the 67-year-old lawmaker suffered a minor stroke in September that affected the thalamus in his brain.

But Wenk said he has made a full recovery and never experienced any physical paralysis or slurred speech. Castle usually doesn’t announce for re-election until just before the filing deadline, which is July 28 in 2008, and Wenk stressed that the Congressman has been as publicly active as ever, both politically and in his official Congressional capacity.

Castle has been traveling throughout the First State, where he made at least three public appearances on Monday, in addition to granting about the same amount of interview requests to the media.

Per his usual schedule for an off year, the Congressman has three to four political action committee fundraisers on the docket, as well as his annual Delaware golf tournament and Kings Creek cocktail party, which he holds every Saturday of Labor Day weekend in Rehoboth Beach.

His campaign office remains open, as it always does in off years, with a smaller staff than he has in election years, which includes a fundraiser working full time in Delaware, as well as a fundraiser working on contract in Washington. Wenk said the campaign is prepared to respond at any time if and when Democrats follow through with their plans to target Castle.

“He’s been very active in Congress on issues he feels passionate about. All that points to a continued high level of engagement, which is what any incumbent does if he continues to seek re-election,” Ratchford said.

Over the years, Castle has made no secret of his desire to run for Senate. But at least as far as 2008 goes, he will not run against Biden, meaning his prospective bid for higher office is dependent on the Democrat retiring upon the conclusion of his sixth term — or winning the Democratic presidential nomination.

There has been some speculation that Biden might decide that 36 years in the Senate is enough. But according to his spokeswoman, that isn’t the case.

Delaware law permits Biden to be on the ballot simultaneously for president and Senate, and Elizabeth Alexander, the Senator’s spokeswoman, said the Democrat does in fact plan to run for re-election next year.

“While Sen. Biden has presently suspended his campaign activities for the Senate due to legal requirements set by the Federal Election Commission, Sen. Biden intends to run for re-election in Delaware,” Alexander said.

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