Del. Lt. Gov. Matt Denn
Del. Lt. Gov. Matt Denn ()

Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden announced last week that he will run for governor in 2016 and not seek reelection in November. Lt. Gov. Matt Denn declared his intent to succeed Biden as attorney general only a few days later.

“After careful consideration, I have concluded that it is not right to ask for your support in 2014, knowing that my focus would be divided between doing my job as attorney general while at the same time running as a candidate for governor,” Biden wrote April 17 in a letter to his supporters. “Therefore, I am announcing today that I will not seek reelection as your attorney general this November.”

Biden has already served two four-year terms as the state’s attorney general. His term expires in November.

“The Office of Attorney General is a four-year commitment. Its responsibilities are too significant, and the voters’ trust too important, not to give it my complete and undivided attention. It should not be, nor can it become, a two-year staging ground for another elected office,” he said in the letter.

Denn followed Biden’s announcement with a Monday letter to his supporters detailing his intention to run for attorney general. The letter was sent after Denn filled out paperwork with the Election Commission declaring his November candidacy.

“I’ve realized that the Attorney General’s Office would allow me to take a leadership role on some issues that are critical to our state, while still staying involved in the issues involving Delaware’s children that have been the core of my work over the last six years,” Denn said in the letter.

Because Biden intends to complete his full term, Gov. Jack Markell will likely not have the opportunity to appoint a successor to gain name recognition before mounting a full campaign to be attorney general. However, Denn already has name recognition from his current role in Markell’s cabinet and his previous job as Delaware’s insurance commissioner.

Eric Rise, a professor of criminal justice and legal studies at the University of Delaware, said that it was politically advantageous for Biden to finish his term as attorney general if he is seeking the governorship.

“If Biden resigned it would have fueled more speculation about his health and ability to perform his job and he doesn’t want those questions raised,” Rise said. “The second thing is that he had the opportunity to be appointed attorney general in the past and declined the offer to run for the office. This supports previous statements he has made about his commitment to the job and desire to see his term fulfilled.”

In 2005, then-Attorney General M. Jane Brady was appointed to a vacant Superior Court judgeship. Ruth Ann Minner, who was governor at that time, offered to appoint Biden to the position, but he declined, citing a desire to run for the position on his own in 2006.

Delaware legal sources have suggested other possible Democratic candidates for attorney general, including Kathleen Jennings, chief state prosecutor, and Chief Deputy Attorney General Ian McConnel. On the Republican side, legal insiders have named Colm F. Connolly, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Delaware and current partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, and Ferris Wharton of the state Public Defender’s Office. Wharton ran for attorney general in 2006, but lost to Biden in a closely contested race.

“The biggest fallout of Biden’s decision will be on the Republican side,” Rise said. “If Biden had run for attorney general, I’m sure the Republicans would have conceded that race or run a token candidate. Now that becomes a statewide office that is in play for the Republicans. They might be able to field a candidate who would be viable against any of the people that are being speculated on the Democratic side.”

Rise added that by virtue of being the first person to throw his hat into the ring, Biden has become the presumptive frontrunner to become governor in 2016. U.S. Rep. John Carney, D-Del., and New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon have also been mentioned as possibilities for the state’s highest position.

“It’s too early to tell who the presumptive nominee will be,” Rise said. “I would certainly say that he is the front-runner because he has announced, has quite a large bankroll behind him and has the Biden name. But a lot of positions could be shuffled in the attorney general race and, out of that, more contenders could emerge.”

Biden’s health could be an issue in the 2016 campaign. In August, he was hospitalized at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to have a small lesion removed from his brain. In February, Biden issued a statement through his doctor that he had a “clean bill of health.” Biden had also suffered a mild stroke in 2010 that also resulted in hospitalization.

Another campaign issue could be his office’s handling of the case of Robert H. Richards IV, a du Pont heir who received probation after confessing to molesting his daughter. Many in Delaware have contended that the plea bargain offered to Richards by the Attorney General’s Office was too lenient.

Rise said he believes the Richards case will not impact Biden’s chances in 2016.

“While I think it will be brought up and mentioned during the governor’s race, two years is a long time in politics,” he said. “I doubt the Richards case will have traction two years from now.” 

Jeff Mordock can be contacted at 215-557-2485 or jmordock@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeffMordockTLI.