Posted: Oct. 21, 2004

SIDESWIPING THE ELECTION

By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Democrats and Republicans in Delaware are not necessarily fighting on the same fronts this election season. The Democrats have their priorities, and the Republicans have theirs, and more often than not, it seems they intend to sideswipe one another, rather than collide.

It may be the reason the politics here seems a little punchless, nothing like George W. Bush and John F. Kerry at the presidential level or even like Christopher A. Coons and Sherry L. Freebery in the primary election just past, when the two Democratic candidates for New Castle County executive went after each other with pure loathing. 

When the parties engage directly, it does create the wrenching desperation that gives a campaign that do-or-die intensity. Strangely, it seems to be most palpable in a Newark legislative race, where each party has a candidate it likes so much it cannot bear the thought of losing. 

The last decade of state politics has not been kind to the Republicans. They lost the governorship, they lost the legendary U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr., they lost a state treasurer, and they saw the Democrats put a stranglehold on New Castle County government.

The result is that the parties have very different expectations for the 2004 Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 2. The Democrats want to prove they are the boss party in this state and aim to keep it that way, while the Republicans want to reverse the slide and show they are the comeback party. Even modest gains for the Republicans would provide a lift for them.

The statewide races make the point. The Democrats envision re-electing Gov. Ruth Ann Minner and Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and nabbing the open race for insurance commissioner, currently in the Republican column. This would leave U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, untouchable as a lieutenant governor, two-term governor and a six-term congressman, as the only statewide Republican to win.

The Republicans expect Castle to waltz, as always. Beyond that, they would be delighted to keep the insurance commissioner, and anything else would make them delirious.

"For us, the biggest change would be to grab the insurance commissioner seat," said state Democratic Chairman Richard H. Bayard. "To take another position held by the Republicans -- which would be the third in four cycles -- is very significant."

Both parties are keying on the presidential race. The Democrats want to carry Delaware for Kerry, as they did for Albert Gore Jr. four years ago, and keep the bragging rights, while the Republicans are going all out for Bush.

"Not only do we want to bring Delaware home for Bush, but every vote you turn out for the president is a potential vote for the Republican ticket," said Republican National Committeewoman Priscilla B. Rakestraw.

The presidential vote here may tell the tale about The Streak, Delaware's record in the national election.

From 1952 through 1996, the voters went with the candidate who went to the White House for 11 consecutive times, the best showing of any state. Then came 2000, when Gore won the popular vote, but Bush took the electoral vote and became president.

If Delaware votes for the winner in 2004, then the last election will look like nothing more than a hiccup, but if the electorate goes for Kerry and he loses, it will be evidence that Delaware has become more of a Democratic blue state than a bellwether.

Below the statewide ballot, the Democrats want to keep the state Senate, the Republicans want to keep the state House of Representatives, and only an unimaginable blowout could change that calculus. Of the 51 legislative seats up this year, about half of them are uncontested. There are probably nine worth watching -- especially three House races with no incumbent running.

In addition, the parties are battling for two key open seats in New Castle County for county executive and council president. Both offices have been held by the Democrats since the 1980s, but scandals can make voters change their minds, and the most populous of the state's three counties has been in a conspicuous uproar since the 2002 election because of a federal investigation into corruption.

The Republicans do not want to let this opportunity go by, but the voter registration is stacked against them.

Statewide races

For Ruth Ann Minner, her campaign for a second term is also something of a farewell tour. The governor's receptionist who rose to be governor herself says this is her 11th and final race in a 30-year career that took her from the legislature to lieutenant governor to the top political prize in Delaware. She is the first woman in the state to be governor, something that still resonates.

Although praise for Democratic legislators is standard in her stump speech -- she says they carried the water for her without spilling a drop -- Minner has made her mark primarily with initiatives that came from upstate Republicans.

She embraced their smoking ban, which became law, and their gay anti-discrimination bill, which did not. She also partnered with the House Republican leadership in guiding the state through a dicey economic downturn.

William Swain Lee, the Republican challenger, is best known as the judge who did not let Thomas J. Capano get away with murder. With a white hat and a household name, Lee came off the bench to resume a lifelong love affair with politics.

Lee has criticized Minner for lacking vision and for mishandling the prison system and the state police, but he is bucking history in his search for the governorship.

Delaware does not discard its governors lightly -- Minner would be the fourth two-term executive in a row -- and no governor has been elected in more than 30 years without previously running and winning statewide. Lee has done neither.

Minner is running with Carney. Lee is teamed with James P. Ursomarso, the Wilmington Republican chairman who works at his family's car dealerships. Delaware elects its governor and lieutenant governor separately, but these days it is hard to tell.

The last time the voters chose a governor and a lieutenant governor from different parties was 20 years ago, when Castle was elected to his first gubernatorial term with Democrat S.B. Woo as the lieutenant governor.

Furthermore, in this campaign in particular, Carney and Ursomarso have functioned chiefly as surrogates for their running mates. They have given the voters no reason to treat them as a distinctive choice.

In the election for Delaware's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, the only suspense seems to be how high Mike Castle can poll. He hit his personal peak in 2002 with a show-stopping 72 percent of the vote.

All that is standing between Castle and a seventh term, a record for Delaware going back to the founding of the Republic, is Democrat Paul Donnelly, a walk-on candidate running on an anti-war platform. Castle appears so formidable that the Democrats were relieved that anyone stepped forward.

One way or another, Delaware will elect a new insurance commissioner this year to replace Donna Lee Williams, a three-term Republican who decided to get out of politics. The candidates are Democrat Matthew P. Denn, a Wilmington lawyer who was Minner's legal counsel, and Republican David H. Ennis, a state representative from Brandywine Hundred with 24 years in the legislature.

The Democrats seem much more serious about winning this race than the Republicans do. According to finance reports filed earlier this month, Denn has raised more than $330,000 for his campaign, including what he needed to win a primary for the nomination. Ennis has collected roughly $46,000 in contributions and also chipped in a personal loan of $16,500.

Not only the money, but voter registration is on the Democrats' side. As of Oct. 1, the state had 542,324 voters with 44 percent of them Democratic, 34 percent Republican and 23 percent others.

General Assembly

The state Senate has been controlled by the Democrats since 1973, the state House by the Republicans since 1984. This is what happens when legislators design their own districts, as they do every 10 years to account for new census figures.

The 21-member Senate with its 13-8 Democratic margin is hardly a battleground. The last time a seat switched parties was three elections ago, when the Democrats picked up one. Besides, with the senators serving staggered four-year terms, only 10 of them are up for election and five are running unopposed.

Each party came up with only one name candidate this year. The Democrats have Brian J. Bushweller, a former Cabinet secretary who is the state director for U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, against Republican Minority Leader John C. Still III in a Dover-area district. The Republicans have Seaford Mayor Daniel B. Short against Sen. Robert L. Venables, a Laurel Democrat, in Sussex County.

The House, where all 41 seats are up every two years, is a little livelier. In 2002 the Republicans roared to a 29-12 majority, primarily due to freshly-drawn districts, and they are as determined to defend their seats, if not expand on them, as the Democrats are to take some of them back.

"When you have as many House seats as we have, you always have a goal of maintaining them, and you always want to pick up some," said Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman.

"They have too many seats. We need to grab some of them. We're going to keep them busy. They're going to know we were there," said Democratic Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan.

There is major-party competition in only 21 of the 41 districts. The most intense is for three open seats, all of them vacated by Republicans in areas where the Democrats have a registration edge.

In Brandywine Hundred, Democrat Diana M. McWilliams and Republican Stacy B. Griggs are squaring off for the seat that David Ennis, the candidate for insurance commissioner, is giving up.

In Newark, Democrat Teresa L. Schooley and Republican Paul J. Pomeroy are fighting to replace Republican Rep. Timothy U. Boulden, who did not seek another term.

In Harrington, Democrat Kimberly Z. Robbins and Republican William R. Outten are seeking the seat of Republican Rep. G. Robert Quillen, who died last month.

The interest seems highest in the Newark race, largely because each party believes it has fielded a top-of-the-line candidate. Collectively the parties have poured more than $100,000 into this contest and sent in their best to help with the campaigning. Castle, Carper, Minner and Jack A. Markell, the Democratic state treasurer, all have weighed in.

In other House races to watch, there are two rematches from 2002. In Sussex County, Republican Rep. Gerald W. Hocker of Ocean View is campaigning to keep the seat he took from Democrat Shirley A. Price of Millville by 57 votes. In the Bear area, Republican Rep. Bruce C. Reynolds is facing a second test from Democrat Valerie J. Longhurst, who came within 500 votes of him before.

In addition, there is spirited opposition in two Sussex County districts.

Brian F. Dolan, a Milton Democrat, is taking on Rep. V. George Carey, a Milford Republican, in a race that is turning on the issues of growth and the gay anti-discrimination bill that Dolan favors and Carey opposes.

Thomas J. Chapman, a Seaford Democrat, is running against Rep. Tina Fallon, a Seaford Republican. Fallon, first elected in 1978, is 87 years old, and her age is an issue.

New Castle County

When Thomas P. Gordon was setting his sights on county executive eight years ago, there was talk the ex-chief of police might run as a Republican. Instead, he filed as a Democrat, and the Republicans who bemoaned it in 1996 are no doubt grateful today.

Because of the federal corruption charges against Gordon and Freebery, his top aide, the Republicans worked to recruit serious candidates for county executive and council president, the top two county posts that the Democrats have owned.

Both offices are open with Gordon barred by law from seeking a third term and Chris Coons, the council president, running for county executive.

While the Democrats had bloody primaries to nominate Coons and Paul G. Clark for the vacancies, the Republicans quickly settled on Christopher J. Castagno for county executive and Ernesto B. Lopez for council president, although Lopez did have to get by a nuisance primary.

The Republicans have tried to pin the county's travails on the Democrats, but Gordon and Freebery never had more than a loose affiliation with the party. They went their own way and enlisted their loyalists wherever they could find them.

The voters will have to decide whether it is enough for Gordon and Freebery to depart or whether the party that hosted them, however nominally, should be punished, too.

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