Posted: May 19, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

In the springtime after an election year, the political parties in Delaware tell the truth to themselves.

From Seaford to Brandywine Hundred as the weather warms up, so do the Democrats and the Republicans, gathering at annual dinners, regional meetings and state conventions to take stock of their fortunes.

The bravado of the past campaign is over, and the next one has not yet come, when the parties will insist once again with straight faces that all of their candidates can win -- well, except maybe for whichever poor sap runs against U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle.

This is that rare time for facing the music, not listening to siren songs. The Democrats and the Republicans are hashing out why they are where they are and where they are going. Because they are doing it in settings away from the voters and the other party, it means more plain talk than trash talk.

The Democrats have more to congratulate themselves about these days, but it has not stopped them from shivering a little. Although they are surging at the state level and they own New Castle County, their national party makes them nervous.

It is not only that. The Democrats also are really, really tired of being in the minority in the state House of Representatives when so much is going their way, and can somebody please do something about Sussex County?

The Republicans have their own worries. They appear to be over the shock that set in three elections ago in 2000, when then-Gov. Thomas R. Carper beat U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. and they never saw it coming. Instead, they are coming to terms with reality.

No longer do they say the Republican nickname of "GOP" stands for "Grand Old Party," but "Grow Our Party" -- which they need to do.

The Republicans are digging in for a backs-to-the wall stand next year on behalf of their three statewide officeholders, the only ones they have, and they actually have visions of breaking out with a run at the state Senate, which has not had a Republican majority since Richard Nixon was president.

It is a new day in politics here, a new century, a post-Sept. 11 world, which both parties are coming to absorb. Delaware is no longer a bellwether state, going election after election for the winning presidential candidate, but a microcosm of the country with an urban-suburban upstate that votes Democratic blue and a rural downstate that prefers Republican red.

There are more voters upstate in New Castle County than downstate in Kent and Sussex counties. The Democrats to their advantage have figured out how to capitalize on that, while the Republicans to their detriment have yet to find a way to counter it.

Speeches at the recent state conventions, the Democrats' last weekend and the Republicans' last month, made that point.

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a two-term Democrat, predicted, "Delaware Democrats will be leading Delaware for a long time."

William Swain Lee, the Republican ex-judge who ran against Minner, hardly contradicted her. "What we care about is winning elections," he said. "We can't carry this state without New Castle County."

In three of the last four elections, the Democrats have picked up a statewide office, giving them six of the nine posts, including governor and both U.S. Senate seats. They control 16 of 18 New Castle County offices, the only exceptions being Republican Councilmen Robert S. Weiner and William J. Tansey -- and both of them were once Democrats.

The Republicans had a gift of an opportunity to make inroads in the county with the 2004 election, but they missed it. The outgoing Democratic administration was scarred by scandal, and the Republicans recruited what they regarded as some top-rate candidates but could not elect even one of them.

Not surprisingly, New Castle County was an overriding consideration at both conventions.

The Democrats went with the hot hand, elevating John D. Daniello from New Castle County chair to state chair. "Our success up here is the envy of the other divisions," Daniello said.

The Republicans rewrote their rules, paring down their New Castle County leadership and centralizing the power as a means of improving the operation. "As a Republican, I'm all about local control. However, what I'm really uncomfortable with is losing elections," County Co-chair Thomas S. Ross said.

As much as the Democrats were patting themselves on the back, they still had some concerns. Mostly they worried about the national Republican juggernaut that controls the White House and the Congress and is working on the judiciary.

They acknowledged that the Republicans nationally are projecting themselves as the party of prayer and patriotism, and they do not want it to undercut their efforts at home. "We don't have the luxury of feeling self-satisfied," said state Treasurer Jack A. Markell. "[The Republican right] is more disciplined, more focused, and God help us, smarter."

In fact, the Republicans' national success does have some resonance here, especially in Sussex County, where the conservative message appeals to the voters. It is the one place the Democrats are losing serious ground.

Seven of the eight state representatives in Sussex are Republicans, and a determined voter registration drive has brought the Republicans to virtual parity with the Democrats. In the other two counties, the Democrats hold a decided registration edge.

As of this week, the Democrats had only 673 more voters than the Republicans in Sussex County -- 43,854 Democrats to 43,181 Republicans (with an additional 23,051 voters unaffiliated with either major party.)

Bill Lee, who recently became the Sussex Republican chair, vowed to go over the top. "We're so close, I've got no excuse," he said.

Against the national and local backdrop, the parties are getting ready for 2006.

On the Democratic side, Carper and Markell are up for re-election. For the Republicans, it is Castle, Attorney General M. Jane Brady and Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr.

The election for attorney general is shaping up as the showcase race. Brady, who is seeking an unprecedented fourth-term, came out of the 2002 campaign looking vulnerable, surviving a three-candidate contest with 48 percent of the vote.

The Democrats are counting on going after Brady with as good a name as they have -- expecting  Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the senator's son, to run. "He'll be on the ballot if I can talk him into it," Minner said.

The Biden political operation has been winning statewide elections since 1972, and the Republicans have begun to describe Brady as having a target on her back.

"The most important race we have in the next election cycle is for attorney general," John S. Bonk, the Christiana-Mill Creek Republican chair, told a party meeting last week.

The parties also are planning an all-out push at the legislative level, where the majority caucuses have been locked in place for decades. The Senate has been Democratic since 1973, and the House has been Republican since 1984.

The Republicans believe they can cut into the Democrats' 13-8 majority in 2006, when the Democrats have to defend nine of the 11 seats up for election, primarily by going after Democratic senators in the lower red counties.

"This is a huge year coming up for the Senate," said Sen. Liane M. Sorenson, the Republican minority whip. "We have a chance to take the Senate."

The Democrats made their intentions clear about the House when Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan distributed buttons reading, "Six in '06," at the state convention. It meant the Democrats want to pick up six seats to overturn the Republicans' 26-15 majority.

Gilligan became the talk of the convention with a case of what he would describe as tell-'em-the-truth-ems, declaring in his speech that the Democrats out-register Republicans in 31 of the 41 House districts, so the Democrats have no one to blame for their minority status but themselves.

He said the Republicans want to control the entire General Assembly to make Minner miserable and set themselves up for the governorship in 2008. "Damn it, we're not going to let it happen," Gilligan said.

The Democrats loved it. This was truth in springtime. Here was Gilligan, thinking he was giving 'em hell, and they thought it was heaven.