The loss of centrist voices

More than two years removed from the race that ended a political career that spanned four decades, Delaware’s former GOP Rep. Mike Castle still has strong feelings about the Tea Partyers that ousted him. 

Castle, 73, now a partner in DLA Piper’s government affairs shop, said he looks back on his failed 2010 Senate bid without regrets. But he worries about the direction of his party and the polarization of Congress. 

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“It’s a drive to become ideologically pure, either as a true liberal or a true conservative,” Castle lamented of today’s politics, during a wide-ranging interview at his sparsely decorated Penn Quarter office.

Castle, of course, was neither. During his 10 years in the Delaware General Assembly, two terms as the state’s governor and an unprecedented nine terms in the nation’s oldest congressional seat, Castle emerged as one of the Republican Party’s leading centrists. 

Ultimately, he was done in by his centrist positions. Running for the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Biden, he lost a primary contest against Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell. 

Castle declined to endorse O’Donnell, who was promptly trounced by now-Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). Castle had been heavily favored over Coons in a general election showdown. 

That he never got there is evidence of a rift between the GOP’s conservative wing and the rest of the party, Castle said. 

“I think it’s worrisome that there is what appears to be a significant division within the Republican Party,” he said.

Castle credits the Tea Party for forcing Washington to address long-standing financial issues. But in its zeal to find candidates unwavering in their conservative positions, the movement has in some instances paved the way for Democratic gains in Congress, he said. 

“They have managed to nominate people who are just ill-prepared to run for office and win,” Castle said. “I think even the Tea Party people are starting to realize that maybe this is counterproductive.”

A native of Wilmington, Castle was in his 20s when he earned his law degree from Georgetown University. A year later, he was back in Delaware, where another young attorney, by the name of Larry Sullivan, approached him. 

Sullivan asked if Castle would like to serve as vice president of a young Republicans organization. 

“I said, ‘How can I be vice president?’ ” Castle recalled. “He said, ‘I’m the only member and I’m the president. If you join, you’ll be the vice president.’ ” 

So began Castle’s foray into the world of politics. Things got off to a rough start — Castle and Sullivan began organizing singles dances and sports teams to build support, and got the idea to raise money to buy and donate a horse to a local school for troubled boys. Within two weeks the horse had died and “we had to give it to a glue factory,” Castle said. 

Still, the political bug had taken hold. He was first elected to the Delaware House of Representatives in 1966. Two years later, he won a seat in the state Senate, where he served another eight years. 

In 1976, Castle decided to step away from public life and go into private practice. But four years after that, then-Gov. Pierre S. “Pete” du Pont IV asked him to serve as lieutenant governor. 

He did, and as du Pont’s chosen successor, Castle was easily elected to his first of two terms as Delaware’s governor. Termed out of the job, he effectively switched places with then Rep. Tom Carper in 1992: Carper, a Democrat, became governor, and Castle was elected to Delaware’s sole House seat. 

Together with Biden, Castle and Carper considered themselves “the three amigos,” despite political differences, Carper recalled. 

“One thing Mike always had in excess was courage,” Carper said. “It wasn’t always easy for him to do what he thought was right, especially when it would have been considerably simpler for him to tow the party line and vote in lockstep with his party leadership.”

For years, however, Castle’s reputation as a centrist brought no adverse political consequences. He was elected and reelected with relative ease, often claiming as much a 70 percent of the vote during his 18-year run. 

In Congress, Castle was a champion for stem cell research funding and an early Republican vote for the repeal of the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning openly gay service members. 

These and other centrist positions put Castle at odds with Tea Party groups, which were growing in influence at the same time he was running for the Senate seat Biden held. An aggressive opposition campaign and low voter turnout combined to help O’Donnell defeat the incumbent in the September 2010 primary. 

Castle described the race and its outcome as unpleasant and maintained that O’Donnell — who later famously declared in a campaign ad that she was “not a witch” — was not up to the responsibilities of the office. 

“I never felt that she was qualified to be a United States senator,” Castle said. “Still don’t.” 

That opinion was echoed by columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., who wrote at the time that Castle’s loss marked the end of moderate Republicanism. 

“Castle’s defeat at the hands of Christine O’Donnell, a perennial candidate who may be the least qualified Senate nominee anywhere in the country, does indeed mark the collapse of the Republican Party not only of Nelson Rockefeller and Tom Dewey but also of Bob Dole and Howard Baker,” Dionne wrote in The Washington Post. 

Also defeated in the 2010 cycle was longtime Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), another casualty of the Tea Party wave. Two years later, another GOP mainstay, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), would also fall to a primary challenger to his political right.

Castle, who splits his time between Wilmington and Washington these days, doesn’t miss the daily grind of Congress. He consults on various issues for DLA Piper, including financial issues, healthcare and energy, and does a small amount of lobbying. 

The firm touts Castle’s centrist record, saying “he has worked across party lines, building bridges and forming coalitions to find pragmatic, bipartisan solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing the country.”

Castle said many of the nation’s most daunting challenges are more difficult to address in an era void of congressional centrists. 

“I just feel this sense of things that this country has to do to improve itself,” he said, adding that his own political career is over. “Those who are willing to sit down and talk to each other are the ones who are going to get it done.”