Posted: Jan. 15, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

All over the country, Democrats are nervous about their prospects in 2010.

It is true even in the Democratic Republic of Massachusetts, where they are so panicked about a special election Tuesday to replace Ted Kennedy that they are all but hanging lanterns in a church steeple and yelling, "The Republicans are coming! The Republicans are coming!"

There is a notable exception, however. That would be the Delaware General Assembly, especially in the Senate and maybe with a twitch or two in the House of Representatives.

The Senate has been Republican-proof since 1973. The House just flipped in 2008, so the Democrats still get flashbacks now and then about life in the depths of the Legislative Hall basement, where the minority caucus has its offices.

Once a decade, the legislative races count more than usual, and this is one of those times.

It happens when the election coincides with the national census, because the legislature that is elected is responsible for redrawing the House and Senate districts to adjust for population shifts and preserve the right to equal representation. One person, one vote.

It is a nerve-wracking time to be the in the minority, because the majority has the political muscle to shape the districts the way it wants. The new boundaries are an opportunity to build in a home-field advantage for the majority for years to come.

"Redistricting. The districts can be gerrymandered and drawn to our disadvantage," said Sen. Liane Sorenson, a Hockessin Republican who is the minority whip.

Sorenson knows what she is talking about. The last time, the Democrats pushed around the lines so her district started at her driveway and cut out her neighbors across the street to keep them from voting for her. Since her election to the Senate in 1994, it was her hardest race.

As a Democratic Party leader once said, "When you're in the minority, you want it to be fair. When you're in the majority, hey, we didn't work this hard to get to be the majority to be fair."

The Democrats control the Senate by 15-6 and the House by 24-17.

A trusty way for picking up seats is focusing on the Three Rs. No, not reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, and never mind that two of those Rs are the Tareq and Michaele Salahi of the Alphabet. They have as much right to call themselves Rs as the party crashers had to be at the White House.

The Three Rs of legislative races are retirement, rookies and registration.

Go after seats that are open because of retirements, because it is easier than taking out an incumbent. Target the opposition's rookies, because they are more vulnerable. Take back districts where the registration is favorable.

Not even the Three Rs can give much hope to the Republicans, though. The Senate looks impregnable, the House a struggle.

So far, there are three retirements, all Republican representatives, putting the party on defense, not offense, when they cannot afford it. The seats of George Carey in the Milford area and Pam Thornburg west of Dover are regarded as winnable for the Republicans, but then there is Bill Oberle's district, south of Newark, where more than half the voters are Democrats.

"With Oberle not running again, it will probably be tough. I really don't know how we win that seat," said Rep. Biff Lee, a Laurel Republican who used to be the majority whip in better days for his party.

There are plenty of House Democratic rookies for the Republicans to challenge. The problem is, there are so many of them because the Republicans coughed up the seats in 2008.

Still, spirited races could be in order for the six Democratic newcomers -- Dennis Edward Williams in Brandywine Hundred, Mike Barbieri near Newark, Earl Jaques near Glasgow, Quinn Johnson in lower New Castle County, and Darryl Scott and Brad Bennett, both in the Dover area.

Registration is not on the Republicans' side, either. Only three of the 41 representative districts have more Republican than Democratic voters, and there are already Republicans in those seats -- Nick Manolakos in Hockessin, Joe Miro in Pike Creek Valley and Gerald Hocker in Sussex County's southeastern corner.

If the House Republicans cannot find a way to win in a favorably Republican election year, they could be looking at a long stay in the basement, particularly after the Democrats take a whack at fortifying themselves through redistricting.

When it comes to fairness, politics takes its cue from Russian figure skating judges.