Posted: Nov. 2, 2004
DELAWARE GOES DECIDEDLY DEMOCRATIC
By Celia Cohen
Delaware went emphatically Democratic on Election Day 2004, sending the state's three electoral votes to John F. Kerry, preserving Gov. Ruth Ann Minner in a squeaker, re-electing Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and awarding the insurance commissioner's office to Matthew P. Denn.
The voters also kept a Democratic majority in the state Senate and added seats to the Democratic side of the aisle in the state House of Representatives, although overall the lower chamber remained under Republican control.
In New Castle County, the Democratic-leaning electorate decided that putting in Democrat Christopher A. Coons as the county executive was sufficient to cleanse the county of the tainted Democratic administration run by Thomas P. Gordon and Sherry L. Freebery.
Once Coons established himself as the anti-Freebery by beating her in a party primary for the nomination, the voters rejected the Republicans' appeal that it would take a new party in control for a fresh start.
The brightest spot Tuesday for the Republicans was the one they always can count on -- the re-election of U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle to a seventh two-year term, a record for Delaware.
The election was especially painful for the Republicans because of the defeat of an exceptional class of next-generation recruits including James P. Ursomarso for lieutenant governor, Christopher J. Castagno for New Castle County executive, Ernesto B. Lopez for New Castle County Council president and Paul J. Pomeroy for a Newark legislative seat.
Those Republican losses are all but certain to accelerate Delaware's increasingly Democratic tendencies, particularly because the future appears there for the taking for a corps of up-and-coming Democrats, including Carney, Coons, Denn, state Treasurer Jack A. Markell and Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the senator's son who would surprise no one if he were on the ballot in 2006.
"I am just very proud that Delaware has again decided that the Democratic ticket is a ticket of their future," U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. said.
As is typical, a large voter turnout signaled the way this year would go, because Democrats tend to be more casual voters than Republicans. Out of 554,194 registered voters, the statewide turnout was 68 percent.
The Democrats kept alive a couple of streaks. This election was the fourth time in a row they carried the state for their presidential nominee and elected a governor. It also was the third out of four elections in which they captured a statewide office that had been held by a Republican, claiming the state treasurer in 1998, a U.S. Senate seat in 2000 and the insurance commissioner this year.
As always, the most closely watched race was the gubernatorial election -- and deservedly so, as Minner needed every drop in the Democratic tide to stay in office.
As the campaign unfolded, the governor unexpectedly found herself on the defensive, pressed by Republican William Swain Lee primarily over the hostage-taking and rape of a prison counselor in a political attack that implied Minner was insensitive to women and negligent about public safety.
Minner polled 51 percent to eke out a second four-year term and survive nervous moments in the final weeks of the campaign. Four years ago she won 59 percent of the vote.
Despite the closeness of the race, Minner was upbeat in her victory speech. "We will do everything we can to show them [voters] they put their trust in the right people," she said. "Tonight, once again I can say I'm proud of my state and proud of its people."
For Lee, it was the second election in a row he came heartbreakingly close to a victory. He lost his party's gubernatorial primary four years ago by 44 votes, and after another narrow loss, he was in no mood to be conciliatory.
"The governor has no mandate to govern now," Lee said in a terse speech that was shorter on concession than criticism.
In a show of reverse coattails, Carney led the statewide Democratic ticket in tallying 62 percent of the vote over Ursomarso and winning his second four-year term. With that performance, Carney did what he had to do to maintain his standing as a front-runner for higher office.
The Democratic trend had but a tick of an effect on Castle, a former governor and lieutenant governor who routinely has recorded stratospheric vote totals of more than 70 percent since his first statewide election in 1980. He polled 69 percent in rolling over Paul Donnelly, a Democratic walk-on whom the party put on its ballot with no illusions.
The state's new insurance commissioner is Matt Denn, formerly Minner's legal counsel, who won the office vacated by Donna Lee Williams, a three-term Republican who decided to leave politics. Denn capitalized on the Democratic year to get 53 percent of the vote and beat Republican David H. Ennis for a four-year term.
The Delaware General Assembly remained under split control, the voters extending the Democratic majority that has been in power in the Senate since 1973 and the Republican majority that has run the House of Representatives since 1984.
There were no changes in the Senate, where the Democrats maintained their 13-8 margin in the 21-member chamber. With senators serving staggered four-year terms, only 10 of them were up for election and five were running unopposed.
Each party set its sights on one possible pickup, but Republican Minority Leader John C. Still III turned back Democrat Brian J. Bushweller in a Dover area district, and Democratic Sen. Robert L. Venables overcame Republican Daniel B. Short in the southwest corner of Sussex County.
In the House, where the members serve two-year terms and all 41 seats were up, the chamber will not be quite as massively Republican as it was, as the party's margin dropped from 29-12 to 26-15.
In the most dramatic House race, Democrat Valerie Longhurst edged by Republican Rep. Bruce C. Reynolds by 28 votes in a Bear area district. It was a rematch of a race that Longhurst came within 500 votes of winning two years ago.
Other fiercely contested representative races were three open seats, all vacated by Republicans, and the Democrats won two of them. The new legislators are Democrat Diana M. McWilliams in Brandywine Hundred, Democrat Teresa L. Schooley in Newark and Republican William R. Outten in Harrington.
In all of Delaware, perhaps there was no more intensity generated than the campaigns for the two top offices in New Castle County as the voters went to the polls for the first time since Gordon, the two-term Democratic county executive, and Freebery, his chief aide, were indicted in May on federal corruption charges.
Republicans sensed an opening to win offices that had eluded them since the 1980s, but they were running in the most Democratic of Delaware's three counties, where the registration is 46 percent Democratic, 30 percent Republican and 24 percent others.
The voters seemed satisfied simply to have Gordon and Freebery gone, Gordon because of the two-term limit on his office and Freebery because she lost a Democratic primary to Coons, and saw no need turn the county over to the Republicans.
With a pair of four-year terms at stake, Coons was elected as county executive over Castagno, and Paul G. Clark was elected as County Council president by defeating Lopez. It proved the point of a campaign button that Coons recently began distributing.
"The RIGHT CHRIS," the button said. "Chris Coons 2004."
Kara Hager contributed to this story.