Posted: Sept. 2, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

When the Delaware Democrats gathered last spring for their state convention, House Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan fired up the delegates with his "Six in '06" speech -- a call to take over the state House of Representatives by winning six new seats next year.

Four months later, the Democrats not only are still talking about Gilligan's address, they are on a serious recruitment drive for candidates to mount an assault on the Republican majority that has controlled the chamber since 1984.

The 41-member House currently has 25 Republicans, 15 Democrats and state Rep. G. Wallace Caulk Jr., who was elected as a Republican and still holds his Kent County seat, even though he moved out of his district and out of his party to become an independent.

Gilligan got the Democrats' attention because the House is such a blot on their record in what is increasingly a Democratic blue state. They hold six of the nine statewide offices, the state Senate, Wilmington and two of the three counties. New Castle County, which accounts for two-thirds of the population, has become a Democratic monster.

The Democrats are pinning the House campaign on their registration, the strength of their 2006 statewide ballot and a national political trend known as the "Six-Year Itch."

They will have U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper and state Treasurer Jack A. Markell for sure and Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III projected for attorney general at the top of the ticket, running in the sixth year of a presidency when the party with the White House tends to lose seats. That would be George W. Bush and the Republicans.

The Democrats' optimism is remarkable, particularly after they sunk to a dismal low of 12 House seats in the 2002 election and heard jokes about holding their caucus meetings in a telephone booth. They did rebound in 2004 by winning three of four open seats and knocking off a Republican incumbent.

"The numbers are in our favor to pick up more seats in '06 than we picked up in '04," said John D. Daniello, the Democratic state chairman.

Numbers, yes. District boundaries, no. Despite a Democratic registration edge in all but 11 representative districts as of March, the Republicans are the ones who drew the voting map as the party in power. It is difficult to unseat Republicans from districts that were fashioned for them.

Still, the Democrats are going to try. Surprisingly, some their earliest recruits are from Kent County and Sussex County downstate, which tends to be red territory favorable to the Republicans.

In Sussex County, the Democrats are counting on Thomas J. Chapman, a teacher, in a rematch with state Rep. Tina Fallon, a Seaford Republican first elected in 1978. Fallon rolled over Chapman with 58 percent of the vote in 2004, but the Democrats figure they might catch her this time, because Fallon would turn 90 years old in a new term.

In Kent County, the Democrats have Harrington Mayor Robert E. "Gene" Price Jr., who lost a party primary in 2004, lined up to go against state Rep. William R. "Bobby" Outten, a first-term Republican also from Harrington.

In addition, Kent County Democratic Chairwoman Abby L. Betts says the party has all but settled on Bobby Walls, a businessman who owns Walls Farm & Garden Center and an irrigation company, to run for Caulk's seat. The Republicans do not have a candidate yet, and Caulk himself cannot run because he no longer lives in the district, which stretches from Magnolia through Frederica to Milford and includes a sliver of Sussex County.

In New Castle County, Eric Levin, a former aide to Carper when he was the governor, has come forward against state Rep. Gregory F. Lavelle, a Brandywine Hundred Republican first elected in 2000. Lavelle reliably has polled about two-thirds of the vote, if he has Democratic opposition at all.

For now, the Democratic field is hardly enough to scare the Republicans. "That's not six in '06. That's only three in '05," quipped Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman.

Yes, Rakestraw can count to four, but she thoroughly discounted Levin, who would be up against a proven vote-getter in one of those districts where the Republican registration actually prevails.

The Democrats, of course, still have plenty of time to find more candidates and expect to do so. Whatever else they manage, they are determined to recruit someone to take on House Speaker Terry. R. Spence, a Stratford Republican with 25 years in Dover.

Spence lives in a district that is heavily Democratic. Despite his constituents' preference for the Democratic presidential candidates and Gov. Ruth Ann Minner in 2000 and 2004, Spence has cast some conspicuously conservative votes. He voted against the smoking ban, against a gay anti-discrimination bill and for a failed resolution urging nourishment to be resumed for Terry Schiavo.

The Democrats believe they can make the case that Spence has lost touch with his district. Furthermore, they still are smarting from an off-the-cuff gibe he made on Election Night 2004, although he later apologized for it.

Spence threatened to make sure the newly elected Democratic representatives "are never heard of -- we can do that, we're in the majority."

As much as the Democrats want six in '06, they want Spence in '06, too.