Posted: Jan. 13, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

As the 2006 election year opens, the Delaware Democrats are on the verge of completing their statewide slate while the Republican ticket still looks like Swiss cheese.

The surging Democrats, who have picked up a statewide office in three of the past four elections, have their sights set on another one, if not two, under the demanding leadership of John D. Daniello, the party's state chair whose motto is, "When you're in the driver's seat, drive."

The Republicans, playing defense, have been forced into the role of the loyal opposition, but they are looking a little too loyal. They have yet to find credible candidates to run against any of the showcase Democrats.

The Republicans have tried, but they have been unable to entice their top choices onto their ticket, and it did not help that M. Jane Brady, a three-term attorney general, walked away late last year, preferring the safety of the Superior Court to the shifting allegiances of the court of public opinion.

There will be five statewide offices on the ballot, four of them with incumbents. U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper and state Treasurer Jack A. Markell are up for re-election on the Democratic side, and U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle and state Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr. are running for new terms for the Republicans.

The attorney general's office is open, but it is more so for the Republicans than the Democrats. Not only do the Democrats have Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, a candidate who will not have a problem with name recognition, on their ballot, but the post is nominally in their hands already because Gov. Ruth Ann Minner appointed fellow Democrat Carl C. Danberg to serve out Brady's term.

The Democrats appear to be filling out the rest of their ticket with surprising ease. It is another sign of their rising fortunes, because it is notoriously difficult for either party to find challengers against proven officeholders.

Dennis Spivack, a lawyer from Brandywine Hundred, is interested in the congressional seat. He has a history not only with the Democrats but with Castle. Spivack was involved with the party in the 1970s and 1980s, and before Castle gave up his law partnership for politics about 25 years ago, Spivack worked for the firm of Schnee & Castle.

The Democrats are talking to Robert B. Wasserbach about a rematch with Wagner, and Wasserbach acknowledges he is giving it serious thought. A throw-in four years ago, he got 38 percent of the vote as a banker with no political experience and little backing. Since then he has left the private sector to work first as the auditor for Wilmington and now for New Castle County.

Daniello, the Democratic chair, is not ready to say he has a statewide ticket in place, but he would not mind if his party fielded a slate of Carper, Markell, Biden, Spivack and Wasserbach.

"If that's the ticket, I think we're in fine shape," he said.

The Democrats are not kidding themselves about Spivack's chances against Castle, a seven-term congressman and two-term ex-governor who routinely polls about 70 percent of the vote.

Even before Brady got out of politics, however, the Democrats were looking at the attorney general's office as the one they most wanted to take over, and the situation only has improved for them since. With the Republicans so far unable to secure the sort of top-tier candidate they would like, the Democrats believe they not only can elect Biden as attorney general but also make a serious effort to win the auditor's race.

On the other side of the ballot, the Republicans are looking for a way to reverse the slide that has given the Democrats seven of the nine statewide officeholders, including governor and both senators. The Democrats have tightened their hold on the state because of the growing preference of New Castle County, where two-thirds of the electorate lives, to vote their way.

While fund raising continues to be a bright spot for the Republicans, it will not matter without attractive candidates to spend it on.

The Republicans know the ticket they wanted to field. In addition to Castle and Wagner, it would be Michele M. Rollins, the business executive, for the Senate, U.S. Attorney Colm F. Connolly for attorney general and Robert I. Hicks, the former New Castle County auditor, for treasurer.

It would have been a strong offering, but there have been three strikes and it is out. Rollins came close to running but said no, Connolly has shown no inclination to leave his federal appointment, and Hicks decided he had better earn a living.

"You probably have to be unemployed to be a good candidate, or like Jack [Markell], already in office," Hicks said.

Terry A. Strine, the Republican chair, says the party expects to have its statewide ticket assembled within a month, although there are no serious names currently buzzing through the state's gossipy political circles.

"We are working. We have nothing to announce yet. We have not yet persuaded what we see as winnable candidates. It's not been for lack of effort or commitment," Strine said.

The Republicans would like to avoid the spectacle of holding their state convention in late April with the only potential challenger being Michael D. Protack, a constant candidate-in-search-of-an-office who wants to run against Carper.

"If a substantial part of the party has a problem with a Protack candidacy, they're running out of time," said William Swain Lee, the retired judge who ran for governor and now chairs the Sussex County Republicans.

There is additional urgency for the Republicans, if they want to stage a statewide comback, because this election falls in a non-presidential year when their turnout typically is better than the Democrats'.

That trend gives the Republicans a better opportunity to win, as it did in 2002 when they re-elected Castle and Wagner comfortably, saved Brady and ran up their majority in the state House of Representatives, one of their last political strongholds. It was the only recent election in which they did not lose a statewide office.

The Democrats know all about the customary Republican advantage, and they are trying to do something about it. They are getting what Daniello said was upwards of $100,000 from the Democratic National Committee to hire three workers for party building. It would give them five staff members, while the Republicans have four full-time and two part-time workers.

The Democrats' bonanza has Strine e-mailing the Republican National Committee for help. The state Republicans expected to be up against solid Democratic candidates and a registration edge, but an influx of money? It really is time for a Republican SOS.