Posted: April 3, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Recruiting candidates is so essential to the fate of political parties that Glenn C. Kenton, a former Republican secretary of state, once said, "The election is 90 percent over when the names go on the ballot."

For 2004, both the Democrats and the Republicans are recruiting early and often. They are already going about it, each in its own way -- which is not surprising, due to the differences between the party that is in and the party that is out.

The Democrats are in, because they hold the governorship. The Republicans are out, because they don't.

The governor, for better or worse, is regarded as the power behind the party. It fell to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who is up for a second term herself next year, to launch the Democrats' effort, and she did it by recruiting someone else to lead the recruiting operation -- two-term Treasurer Jack A. Markell.

Markell isn't on the ballot in 2004. When he was in 2002, Minner tapped Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. to be in charge of recruiting. It made sense -- advancing the party by turning to two statewide officials who expect to advance themselves and by stirring the rivalry between Markell and Carney that both charmingly downplay.

Still, other politicians know ambition when they see it. When one Democrat learned that Markell would be the recruiting czar for 2004, he said merrily, "I'm sure that every candidate he helps will help him."

Without a governor, without someone like Markell or Carney available, Republican State Chairman J. Everett Moore Jr. regards recruitment as a party function. He has enlisted everyone in leadership -- himself, the seven regional chairs and the 41 representative district chairs -- to find candidates.

Moore is stepping down next month after a single two-year term as the state chairman, but recruiting is such a priority that he did not dare let it languish until someone new takes over. "It was very important to me that I had plans laid out -- finance plans for the next year and candidate recruitment for the next year," he said.

"You can't win a race unless you have a horse in it, and by horse, I mean someone who is strong," Moore added.

Ideal candidates not only are active politically but have a base in their communities -- fire companies, civic associations, churches, sport leagues, labor unions, wherever people congregate.

Identifying candidates entails more than collecting names for the ballot. Both parties also see it as priming their recruits for the campaign -- providing assistance in fund raising, organizing, crafting political literature, writing press releases and so on. The Republicans are particularly proud of their absentee ballot program, sending the ballots to all of their voters.

It is all the grunt work of politics. The party that cuts corners doing it cuts itself.

"It's not rocket science. But it also doesn't happen just because you wake up in the morning. It's not sufficient to recruit a good candidate and then say, see you on Election Night," Markell said.

The Democrats may be the party in power, but they are feeling the pressure for 2004 because of what happened in 2002. While the Democrats re-elected their two statewide incumbents on the ballot -- Markell and U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. -- and kept control of the state Senate, their numbers were decimated in the state House of Representatives.

The Democratic caucus in the 41-member chamber shrank from 15 to 12 representatives. The biggest reason was redistricting, the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative districts to account for population shifts, because the Republicans as the majority masterminded the new map.

Candidate recruitment also played a considerable role in the House results. The Republicans beat two Democratic incumbents in Sussex County by finding challengers who fit the redrawn districts there. The Democrats' bright spot was winning three out of four districts where no incumbent was running.

The Democrats got the message. "We're doing recruitment, and we're doing it early," Minner said. "We sort of let down our guard in '02, and we're going to be back on top in '04."

For the statewide races in 2004, neither party has much work to do.

For governor and lieutenant governor, Minner and Carney are running for second terms. The Republicans have William Swain Lee, a retired judge, running for governor, although he does have a challenger, and they have a cattle-call of candidates to sort out for lieutenant governor.

For U.S. representative and insurance commissioner, Republicans Michael N. Castle and Donna Lee Williams are seeking re-election, although Williams, now in her third term, could face a primary. The Democrats are expected to back Matthew P. Denn, the governor's legal counsel, for insurance commissioner. As for Castle, who is now in his sixth term after being governor, the Democrats gave up against him years ago.

Further down the ballot, some state representative districts already are emerging as targeted races where candidate recruitment is expected to be intense. All involve rookie legislators.

One match-up already is set in Sussex County, where Democrat Shirley A. Price wants a shot at Republican Rep. Gerald W. Hocker, who unseated her by 57 votes.

The Democrats are expected to look for someone against Republican Rep. John C. Atkins, who won an open seat in a Sussex district with a Democratic registration edge. The Republicans are expected to go after Democratic Rep. Bethany A. Hall-Long, who won an open seat in the Middletown area. She has drawn attention as a nursing professor who nevertheless voted for a bill that would weaken the smoking ban, legislation that cleared the House with a bare 21-vote majority and was sent to the Senate.

While recruitment is political life-or-death, it is not supposed to be suicidal. It only goes so far, as Markell is showing by example. He will not be recruiting himself to run against Castle.

"No, thank you," Markell said.