Posted: Jan. 17, 2011


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

A clue to what would happen in the special election for the New Castle County Council president could have been found in the 2008 primary.

Back then, someone came out of nowhere to run in the Democratic primary for council president against Paul Clark, otherwise running placidly for a second term without a Republican opponent in sight, and took more than 40 percent of the vote.

Something was going on when an unheralded candidate, who was actually nothing but a generic Democrat, could do that well. It was like Clark was losing votes to "John Doe."

Who remembers that the name on the ballot was Bill Dunn? All he had in his favor was the "ABC" vote -- Anybody But Clark -- but it turned out to be a harbinger of the protest vote that came out again Thursday for the special election.

In a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2-1, the voters nevertheless made a Republican their council president, and it was not subtle. Tom Kovach, a Republican who had just been bounced out as a state legislator, polled 58 percent of the vote against Tim Sheldon, a Democratic councilman, as well as two minor party candidates.

A vote is a very blunt instrument. It is not like microsurgery, but amputation.

It is the reason the Republicans were crushed in the 2010 election as the voters did everything but hold an exorcism to rid themselves of Christine O'Donnell, who committed the cardinal sin in Delaware politics of embarrassing the electorate.

In the special election, the voters were at it again.

"This was just a vote against Paul Clark," said Debbie Hudson, a Republican state representative whose Greenville-Hockessin district voted resoundingly for Kovach.

The special election was the voters' chance to make their point about Clark, the unelected county executive who moved up from council president when Chris Coons departed for Washington as the new Democratic senator.

People have had their fill of county executives who give them the willies. The post has only been around since 1967, but it still has got to be the most troubled in Delaware.

Mel Slawik, a Democrat, went from the county executive's office to jail. Rita Justice, a Republican, was married to Kermit Justice, the state transportation secretary who went to jail in an FBI sting involving the county. Tom Gordon, a Democrat, and his chief aide Sherry Freebery were brought down by corruption charges, even if they did largely fizzle.

Now there is Clark, who has managed to make his wife Pam Scott the most famous land use lawyer in the state.

The Republicans should not have won the special election, not with the voter registration so stacked against them, but it is the sort of thing that happens when the turnout is low -- in this case a meager 7 percent.

The more motivated voters carry the election, and this one was made for it because of the campaign hangover from 2010, the holidays and the peculiarity of going to the polls on a Thursday.

"It was a combination of things. The Republican Party does do well in these special elections. Tom was a good candidate -- not that Sheldon was a bad candidate -- and nothing the Democrats could do could change that. There was perhaps the conflict with Paul Clark and his wife representing developers. People are aware of that," said Mike Castle, the Republican ex-congressman.

The Republicans had a ready-made strategy going into the special election. Kovach ran as a Castle Republican, and the party concentrated on turning out their voters who were for Castle in the infamous senatorial primary he lost to O'Donnell. It was another one of those examples of what motivated voters can do.

Kovach ran up his numbers in Brandywine Hundred, where he lives, and in Greenville, Hockessin and Pike Creek Valley, including the representative district in Pike Creek Valley where Sheldon lives.

Sheldon carried the traditional Democratic areas like Wilmington, Elsmere and New Castle. He actually won more representative districts than Kovach did, 14-12, but Sheldon was swamped by the outpouring, such as it was, in the districts that went for Kovach.

Interestingly, Kovach essentially carried the same New Castle County representative districts that Jack Markell won in the 2008 primary for governor against John Carney. The exception is Newark, where Markell grew up. Newark went big for Markell but indifferently for Sheldon.

The special election is more evidence that the state has gone Democratic because the dominant strain of voters who were once Castle moderates have transmigrated into Markell moderates.

Give them the right Republican and the right circumstances, however, and they can cross back.