WASHINGTON — A year from now, when we are in the final weeks of the midterm elections, voters across the country will likely be focused on a state that has rarely drawn attention from any but its own residents. Delaware, noted only for its gentlemanly politics, will probably be the site of one of the most hard-fought and headline-grabbing Senate races in America.
Republican Rep. Mike Castle, who has never lost in 12 trips to the statewide general election ballot, will likely face Democratic Attorney General Beau Biden, the son of Vice President Joe Biden, the longtime Delaware senator.
As Democrats from Connecticut to Colorado struggle to hold onto their filibuster-proof 60-seat margin, no state — not even Barack Obama’s Illinois — will have higher priority for the White House than Delaware.
With the seat-warmer appointee who was named to succeed the vice president in January already having announced that he will not run next year, young Biden would normally be the favorite in this Democratic state. Having just returned from a year in Iraq as a Delaware National Guardsman, he has no real competition for the nomination — and is expected to announce within weeks.
But in Castle, he faces the most consistent winner, other than the elder Biden, in the last 43 years of Delaware history. Castle has probably had personal conversations with most of the quarter-million voters likely to cast ballots next year. He has won statewide races for governor and lieutenant governor and has rarely finished below 65 percent for the lone House seat.
Several factors add to the intrigue of the prospective race. In addition to the partisan differences, Biden represents a sharp generational choice for Delaware voters. At 40, he is 30 years younger than Castle, who thought long and hard about retiring next year before delighting Republican strategists by signing up to run.
Democrats hope that Castle’s winning streak will prove no more durable than that of former Republican Sen. Bill Roth, who was toppled by the much younger former Gov. Tom Carper in 2000, the last seriously contested race.
But where Roth was a staunch conservative in an increasingly Democratic state, Castle is a leader and survivor among the declining ranks of moderate House Republicans. As such, he is a particularly accurate barometer of Obama’s political health and the dynamics of the House of Representatives.
Castle is a notably quiet person, but he has demonstrated plenty of backbone. When George W. Bush was advertising his readiness to veto a bill expanding stem cell research, Castle teamed with a liberal Colorado Democrat and forced Bush to carry out his threat. Castle was also one of the few Republicans to support campaign finance reform and oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
He told me that he is convinced, based on a meeting with Obama, that the president is sincere in wanting to pass bipartisan legislation, but he said the House Democratic leadership “sees no reason to consult with Republicans.” He joined all other House Republicans in voting against the economic stimulus bill and opposed the version of health care reform that came out of his committee last summer.
He strongly suggested in our interview that he will continue to oppose the Democratic health legislation because “I can’t see where it is going to save any money.”
When I asked if he thought he could safely oppose both the key bills on Obama’s domestic agenda and be elected in a state the president carried easily, he said, “I have been more supportive than most Republicans of Obama’s environmental and social issues, but I’m not going to vote for a program that I think is too costly and unmanageable.”
The early polls on a possible Castle-Biden race give the Republican double-digit leads, but both parties expect this to become a close contest. Castle can count on ample support from Washington, but obviously so can Biden if he jumps into the battle.
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.