Posted: Jan. 27, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Delaware could be looking at its first $400,000 race for a legislative seat. Maybe even two of them.

This is what can happen when redistricting squeezes together some of the biggest money candidates from past elections, and nobody wants to go home.

Who knew knocking on doors could get to be so expensive?

One looming financial arms race has Mike Katz, a Democratic senator, challenged by Greg Lavelle, the Republican minority leader in the House of Representatives. Lavelle's own seat was collapsed by redistricting, so he is going after Katz in a sprawling Greenville-Brandywine Hundred district.

The other involves Dave Sokola, a Democratic senator, and Liane Sorenson, the Republican minority whip in the Senate. Redistricting threw them both into a single Hockessin-Newark seat.

"All four of these candidates are experienced and sophisticated. They've been out there. The question is, can they raise it? For Katz and Lavelle, there's not too much question they're going to get there," said Bob Byrd, a top lobbyist who has a great deal of experience writing out checks for campaign contributions.

The money for the fiercest legislative campaigns has exploded over the past 10 years.

Sorenson was there when it started. In the last round of redistricting for 2002, she was challenged by Rick DiLiberto, a Democratic representative who found himself district-less. Their campaigns combined for the first $200,000 race ever.

At least, it was the first one to be reported. It does not take Inspector Clouseau to suspect that not all political money sees the light of day.

The record did not stand for long. It went to $250,000 in 2004 as John Still, a Republican senator, fended off a furious charge from Brian Bushweller, a Democrat, in a Dover district. Bushweller won the seat later when Still gave it up.

Nor did that record take long to be broken. It hit almost $375,000 in 2008 when Katz won his seat by defeating John Clatworthy, the Republican candidate. Both of them also had to pay for primaries before they squared off. Katz is still out $73,000 he loaned his campaign.

Along the way, Sokola had a $200,000 race in 2006 when he turned back Mike Ramone, now a Republican representative.

If there is going to be a new record in 2012, Katz and Lavelle are regarded as the ones more likely to set it. Katz is a doctor. Lavelle works for a financial consulting firm.

"I'm a true fiscal conservative. I never spend more than I need to," Lavelle quipped.

Sorenson and Sokola do not think they will mount a $400,000 race. No doubt, they hope not. Because of the state law on contribution limits, the money has to be collected one check of not more than $600 at a time.

"No, no way. In that [Katz-Clatworthy] race, you had people who were unknown. We'll both spend a good deal of money, but it will be won at the door," Sorenson said.

Sorenson and Sokola have not been stockpiling contributions. In their campaign finance reports for 2011, Sorenson shows $9,800 and Sokola $8,500. But Katz and Lavelle have. Katz has $126,600 and Lavelle $82,300.

Outside forces could tamp down the money race. The economy is convalescent at best, while the ballot is unusually crowded. There are high-profile statewide elections, like the one for governor, not to mention all 62 legislative seats are up. The scramble for contributions should be intense.

The most voracious money-eater in legislative campaigns is the mass mailings and the consultants who create them. There could be a silver lining here. These races could possibly save the postal system all by themselves.

"We're lucky we don't have to pay for television," Sorenson said.