Posted: May 5, 2007

REPUBLICANS SAVE A SEAT AND THEMSELVES

By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Republicans kept a seat in the state House of Representatives and their pride by winning a tumultuous special election Saturday in Sussex County. 

The Republicans sent Gregory A. Hastings to Dover after waging a two-front political war, fending off the conventional candidacy of Democrat Lynn R. Bullock and a defiant write-in campaign for John C. Atkins, the Republican ex-representative who resigned amid scandal to force this election.

With one voting machine too out of commission to count, the results had Hastings drawing 43 percent from more than 4,100 votes to outpoll Bullock at 38 percent and Atkins at 14 percent. John M. Burton Jr., running on the Independent Party, came in at 5 percent.

It was a victory fervently needed by the Republicans. They have been losing ground steadily in Delaware politics and were blindsided three weeks ago when they lost a special election for a House seat in Brandywine Hundred. Not only had it been a reliable Republican seat, but the party considered special elections to be one aspect of politics they still could lord over the Democrats.

Hastings' election gave the Republicans a chance to feel good again and to give themselves a little breathing room in the state House. They now hold a 22-19 majority in their last base in Legislative Hall, where the governor, lieutenant governor and the state Senate are all Democratic.

The Republican celebration was loud at a Millsboro restaurant.

"It's a Republican state representative, and we are going nuts!" said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman.

State Rep. Richard C. Cathcart, the Republican majority leader, called the election a relief for his caucus. "It's a huge victory for us. It's the feeling we should have had a few weeks ago. We lost one we should have won, and we redoubled our efforts here," he said.

The Democrats actually have a 500-vote registration edge in the 41st Representative District, but it is misleading, because this area in south central Sussex County is as conservative as it gets. The Democrats simply were unable to counter those leanings.

"They have a registration advantage, but we have a philosophical advantage," said William Swain Lee, the retired judge who was the Republican candidate for governor in 2004 and recently served as the Sussex County Republican chair.

The Democrats were optimistic that Atkins could draw enough Republican votes for them to win, but it was not to be.

"They won. I congratulate them. This was a Republican seat, and we feel we contested it very well. They didn't pick up anything. They kept what they had," said state Rep. Robert F. Gilligan, the Democratic minority leader. "Since January we picked up a seat, so we're better off. We'll certainly be back to contest the House of Representatives in '08."

The election closed out a bizarre six months of turmoil that consumed the House as it wrestled with what to do about Atkins for throwing his influence around in a drinking-and-driving stop in Ocean City, Md., and a domestic violence arrest at his home in Millsboro in a night of carousing.

Atkins resigned in March as the votes mounted toward expulsion, after the Ethics Committee concluded he brought the House into disrepute.

The unknown in the election was a potential backlash for Atkins, which he did nothing to discourage. All day long, the Republicans and Democrats were tense, not knowing how many of the voters they were urging to the polls were writing in Atkins, a three-time winner in the district with a lot of constituent service to his credit and a reputation for a rakish charm. 

The place was alive with election activity. U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper was there for the Democrats and U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle for the Republicans. Almost the entire Democratic House caucus showed up, and pickup trucks with Atkins signs on them drove the streets.

The afternoon gave Atkins more to worry about than an election. His 3-year-old boy accidentally was hit in the head with an aluminum baseball bat during a T-Ball game in the yard. Atkins, who was in the garage at the time, ran for his son and scooped him up, blood everywhere.

Atkins ran the two blocks to the Millsboro fire hall for medical aid. His son needed 40 stitches at Beebe Medical Center in Lewes, but Atkins said he was all right.

The talk of the day was what happened at a chicken barbecue at Millsboro Wesleyan Church, which happens to be next to Atkinsí house. Gilligan, the Democratic minority leader, stopped for lunch, only to find Atkins there, too, some time before the T-Ball incident. 

Gilligan was part of the House Ethics Committee, which investigated Atkins, but the two sat and ate together. This is Delaware, after all.

Is this the end of Atkins in politics? "I must still have a little clout, if the minority leader had lunch with me," he quipped. "I'm 36 years old. You never know."

This is Atkins, after all.

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