Posted: April 23, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

The political map of the United States is drawn by convention in two colors. The states that vote Republican in the presidential contest are red. The states that vote Democratic are blue.

Florida was sort of purple for 36 days in 2000, but with an assist from the U.S. Supreme Court, it eventually went red for George W. Bush as the blue for Albert Gore Jr. faded away.

Delaware was a blue state in 2000, the first time since 1948 it was not the color of the president's party, ending its bragging rights to a streak of 12 elections in which it was a bellwether for the nation.

Delaware blue, however, is something of a camouflage for what is happening here politically.

Just as there are red and blue states, Delaware has red and blue counties. In recent years, in elections where it counts, New Castle County is Democratic blue, and Kent County and Sussex County are Republican red.

With almost two-thirds of all voters living in New Castle County, the state's northernmost locality emerges as an electoral blue gorilla in the customary upstate/downstate divide.

Delaware politics sounds like something out of Dr. Seuss -- not quite the One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish of the late children's writer, but One County, Two Counties, Blue County, Red Counties.

 If the state has lost its bellwether status in presidential elections, it has become representative of the country in another way, reflecting the political split between urban/suburban and rural constituencies.

"This is happening all over the United States. Democrats are getting the urban and suburban vote, and the Republicans are getting everybody else. If you fly over the United States at night in a satellite, where the lights are is where the Democrats are," said Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman, a former chief aide to U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and a past Democratic national committeeman who has taught politics for 12 years at Duke University School of Law.

Delaware politics clearly is not what is used to be. For about the last 30 years, the voters were blithe ticket-splitters, hop-scotching down the ballot with a predilection to land on incumbents.

Nowhere was it more obvious than in the U.S. Senate elections, where the electorate kept William V. Roth Jr., the Republican, and Biden, the Democrat, together in office for term after term, often making a mockery of presidential coattails. Roth was re-elected in 1976 when the state voted for Democrat Jimmy Carter for president, and Biden did the same in 1984 as the voters went with Republican Ronald Reagan.

As the 20th Century gave way, a new trend seemed to appear. Democrat Jack A. Markell beat a troubled Republican incumbent for state treasurer in 1998. Democrat Thomas R. Carper moved from governor to senator by ousting Roth in 2000. Democrat Carl Schnee came within 7,000 votes of dumping Republican Attorney General M. Jane Brady in 2002 -- and probably would have if the Green Party's Vivian A. Houghton had not siphoned off more than 13,000 votes.

Markell did it the old-fashioned way, winning in all three counties, but Carper and Schnee are evidence of the blue-county-red-counties dynamic. Carper rolled over Roth in New Castle County but lost Kent and Sussex. Schnee came out of New Castle County with a lead, but Brady made it up downstate.

The same pattern manifested itself in the 2000 presidential vote here. Gore clobbered Bush in New Castle County, but Bush carried Kent and Sussex.

It all looks like so much handwriting on the wall to Republicans, and the ink is blue.

"We will not elect another statewide Republican who is not an incumbent for a long time -- unless George Bush turns out to be the next George Washington," said Glenn C. Kenton, a Republican strategist who was the secretary of state from 1977 to 1985 for Gov. Pierre S. du Pont.

Both Kenton and Kaufman chalk up the new trend to the changing nature of the electorate.

In New Castle County, for example, where Brandywine Hundred was once full of Du Pont Co. families who voted reliably Republican, Kaufman nows call that region "persuadable." Kenton says it is because the DuPont retirees are dying or moving, replaced by younger, two-income families who tend to vote Democratic.

"New Castle County in voting behavior and demographics looks like eastern Pennsylvania, and the demographics continue to march," Kenton said.

In contrast, Kenton and Kaufman regard Kent County and Sussex County as more southern in their politics, and the South is a sea of red states.

The voter registration rolls for the 2002 election were telling. The farther south you went, the better off the Republicans were:

--Of the state's 519,816 voters, 43 percent were Democrats, 34 percent were Republicans, and 23 percent were others.

--In New Castle County, where there were 338,475 voters, they were 45 percent Democratic, 32 percent Republican and 23 percent others.

--In Kent County, where there were 77,976 voters, they were 41 percent Democratic, 34 percent Republican and 25 percent others.

--In Sussex County, where there were 103,365 voters, there was virtual parity between the two major parties, separated by roughly 1,500 voters. The Democrats were 40 percent of the electorate, the Republicans 39 percent and the others 21 percent.

Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman, raises a stubborn counterargument, insisting that Delaware still is the swing state it has been. "It looks like a Democratic state because the same people have been in office for a long period of time. Delaware is given to cycles, and Delaware gets attached to incumbents," she said.

Kaufman says no. "This is a Democratic state now. That doesn't mean a Republican can't win, but that's going to be the exception," he said.

If the Republicans have any reason for optimism, it lies in their strong turnout. In the 2002 election, they out-hustled the Democrats in every county.

In New Castle County, Republicans got out 48 percent of their voters while the Democrats got out 44 percent of theirs. In Kent County, 49 percent of the Republicans voted, compared to 44 percent of the Democrats. In Sussex County, a whopping 57 percent of the Republicans voted, while 51 percent of the Democrats did.

The Sussex Republican turnout not only was key in saving Brady in the attorney general's race but also defeated two Democratic state representatives. "Sussex was the story in this election. It was striking," said Joseph A. Pika, a political science professor at the University of Delaware.

While demographics often are destiny, other forces also are at play. Kenton believes there is a way for William Swain Lee, who is expected to be the Republican candidate for governor, to defeat Democrat Ruth Ann Minner when she runs for a second term in 2004 -- if there is a strong Republican turnout, if Minner struggles and if Bush is enormously popular.

That said, turnout tends to go the Democrats' way in a presidential year. Still, a Republican can't just throw in the towel, can he?

"I did," Kenton said.