Tom Carper, a fixture in Delaware politics as a statewide officeholder for nearly a half-century, is ending his storied career in January 2025 when his fourth U.S. Senate term ends.
Speculation has been rampant about Carper’s future since he won his current term in 2018 at the age of 71. The centrist Democrat had raised money for a possible run at a fifth six-year term. On Monday, he announced he will not seek reelection in 2024 but will “run through the tape’’ until his term ends.
Flanked by his wife Martha, Carper revealed his plans and reflected on his decades in politics during a half-hour speech at Wilmington’s entertainment and residential complex along the Christina River, a massive project that began in the mid-1990s when he was governor.
“If there’s ever an opportune time to step aside and pass the torch to the next generation, it’s coming,” Carper said. “Until then, God willing, I’ll continue working 60 hours a week and coming home on the train most nights as long as this lady will keep leaving the light on for me.”
Carper said he will devote the next 20 months to helping his Delaware neighbor and former Senate colleague President Joe Biden advance his agenda and get reelected.
He said his health is not an issue and that he exercises six days a week, running several miles at a time or working out with weights at the YMCA.
“I feel great. I could run most of these people into the ground,’’ he quipped while surveying about 50 reporters, current and former aides, and politicos who showed up Monday to hear his decision.
The bottom line, however, is that the Delaware politician with a record 14 consecutive statewide victories is stepping off the stage.
Carper’s exit will open up the coveted spot at the top of the ballot in the 2024 election, though no one has yet announced their candidacy.
Political pundits have suggested that if Carper stepped down, U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester or Gov. John Carney, who can’t seek reelection after two terms, would be strong candidates. Both are Democrats in a state where the party holds all nine statewide elective offices and a nearly two-to-one registration advantage over Republicans.
Carper said he would encourage Blunt Rochester, a former congressional aide who’s now in her fourth two-year term in Congress, to seek the position.
“We love Lisa,’’ Carper said. “I spoke to her this morning and I said, ‘You’ve been patiently waiting for me to get out of the way and I’m going to get out of the way. I hope you run and will let me support you. And she said, ‘Yes, I will let you support me’ and so I’m going to.”
In 2016, Blunt Rochester became the first Black representative elected to Congress from Delaware. She’s also the first woman state voters have sent to Washington.
Blunt Rochester’s office sent out a statement applauding Carper’s “astounding accomplishments” but did not immediately reply to a request from WHYY News for comment on Carper’s preliminary endorsement as his successor.
Carper knocked off GOP’s Bill Roth to win Senate seat in 2000
A West Virginia native who grew up in Ohio, Carper earned a degree in economics from Ohio State. He joined the Navy as a flight officer and served in the Vietnam War before moving to Delaware in 1973 to get a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Delaware.
He never left.
Carper developed an interest in politics, and Democratic leaders liked the elective prospects of the handsome, earnest young man.
In 1976, at the age of 29, he ran for treasurer and won a two-year term. He was reelected twice, but in 1982 set his sights for Congress and won his first of five terms as U.S. representative.
In 1992, he essentially switched places with incumbent governor Republican Mike Castle, who won the seat in Congress while Carper was elected for the first of his two terms as governor.
In 2000, though, Carper took the biggest risk of his political career by deciding to challenge U.S. Sen. Bill Roth, himself a five-term Republican incumbent. Roth was immensely popular and had sponsored legislation creating the Roth IRA that offers tax-free withdrawals.
But Roth was 79 years old, and while the 53-year-old Carper didn’t make the incumbent’s age an issue, Roth collapsed during a campaign event at the Hotel du Pont, which was captured on video. Roth said it was an unfortunate episode of vertigo, but the event magnified the age difference as Carper campaigned with vigor up and down the state.
Carper rolled to victory over Roth by 12 percentage points and won his three reelection bids by even larger margins. In 2009, he became the state’s senior senator when fellow Democrat Joe Biden stepped down to become Barack Obama’s vice president.
Currently, Carper chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and is senior member of both the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The Washington insider frequently refers to himself, however, as a “recovering governor’’ and regularly meets with constituents during visits to businesses, nonprofit agencies, and other establishments in New Castle, Kent, and Sussex counties.
“I”m somebody who goes to work every day, gets up every day thinking, how do we help people? And one of the best things we can do to help people is to help make sure they have a job,’’ he said. “As governor, you’re in a better position to make sure people have a job and can provide a life for themselves by the work we do in our schools and the kind of schools that we have to educate the workforce. The other thing is just providing a nurturing environment for businesses large and small so that they’ll want to be in Delaware and grow.”
Delaware Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock, who was chief of staff when Carper was governor from 1993 to 2001, said Monday’s announcement was “a bittersweet day” for him.
“Tom Carper has literally bent the arc of Delaware history,’’ Bullock said after listening to his old boss and friend. “Anywhere you go up and down our state, you see a little bit of Tom Carper. We’re standing here at the Wilmington Riverfront, which literally wouldn’t be here without Tom Carper and without his support.”
‘No one worker harder for Delaware than Tom Carper’
Other Democratic political players in Delaware paid tribute to Carper as well, noting that the state achieved its first AAA bond rating when he was treasurer and that his tenure as governor helped usher in decades of economic stability.
State Senate leaders issued a statement that called Carper’s “impact on Delaware too enormous to fathom, and his legacy too great to fully comprehend.”
Besides the Wilmington waterfront, which was transformed from a decrepit former shipbuilding center into a mecca for Wilmington residents and visitors alike, the Senate statement cited his “creation of the First State National Historic Park and the protection of our beaches and inland bays” as well as his work nationally “as a champion of the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Post Office, and American infrastructure.”
Chris Coons, Delaware’s junior U.S. senator, said Carper has been a mentor for generations of Delaware leaders, including himself. “From my first race for County Council president, he has encouraged and supported my career in service, acting as a source of advice and encouragement when I needed it most, and as a role model for balancing family and service,” Coons said.
Gov. Carney, who Carper suggested might get tapped for a federal post by President Biden if he gets reelected, called Carper “an institution’’ in Delaware.
Carney also noted that Carper never got caught up in the name-calling and ugliness that sometimes defines the Washington political establishment in both parties.
“In a time of increasing divisiveness, Senator Carper continues to work across the aisle to find common ground and get things done,’’ Carney said.
And while Blunt Rochester didn’t tip her hand on her political plans, she praised Carper’s service, personal touch, achievements, and work ethic.
“No one put more miles in than Tom Carper,’’ she said. “No one worked harder for Delaware than Tom Carper. And I’m thrilled that he’ll now get to spend more time with Martha and his wonderful sons. After all, I know that the titles of husband and father have always meant more to him than senator.
“To me, this is Tom Carper’s legacy. That he deeply loved our state of neighbors. That he worked tirelessly every single day to make it a better place. And that in his endeavor, he succeeded.”
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