Posted: Jan. 8, 2016


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Democrats have been in charge of the state Senate for so long, people could be excused for wondering if the last time another party had the majority, it was the Whigs.

Not that bad. Still, it was a long enough ago that Joe Biden was a New Castle County councilman at the time. No kidding.

The Democrats have been in the majority and the Republicans in the minority since the first day of session in 1973. As the chamber was organizing itself for the new term, the Republicans were supposed to be in control, but two of them conspired to switch sides and vote with the Democrats in an act of pure political treachery.

The Republicans have been paying for it ever since. It is kind of like the curse of Babe Ruth.

No matter what has been going on in Delaware politics, the state Senate has been impervious to it. The Democrats can be down as a party, as it was when they fell to two statewide officeholders in the early 1980s, or they can be up as it was when the Republicans had nobody but the auditor in statewide office in the early 2010s, but the Democratic majority has gone on and on.

It takes 11 votes to run the state Senate, where there are 21 members. Something always happens to the Republicans whenever they get close.

Most recently, the Republicans have been clawing their way up since they were shrunk so severely by the 2008 election, they were outnumbered by 16-5, to get to where they actually thought they had a shot at winning the chamber if everything broke their way in 2012, but instead they lost two seats, as Liane Sorenson retired and Dori Connor lost, and that was that.

Now the Republicans are showing signs of trying again in 2016, when 11 state senators are up for re-election, seven of them Democrats and four of them Republicans.

The Democrats are currently in control by 12-9, so the Republicans need two seats to get to the majority. Easier said than done.

Not only does the state have 126,000 more Democratic than Republican voters on the registration rolls, but 2016 is a presidential election year, when the Democrats typically can count on a better turnout from their more casual voters.

Even so, the Republicans are already strategically fielding candidates.

They have challengers against the two oldest Democratic state senators whose terms are up, namely, Bruce Ennis, who will be 77 on Election Day, and Harris McDowell, who will be 76. It worked for the Republicans in 2014, when they took out Bob Venables, who was 81.

The Republicans also have a candidate lining up against Patti Blevins, the Democratic president pro tem. Blevins has a long history as a master political organizer for her caucus, but this way she will be pinned down more in her own district with less time for the other races.

Not that anyone is supposed to notice what the Republicans are up to.

"This is called 'democracy at work' in Delaware," deadpanned Greg Lavelle, the state Senate's Republican minority whip.

Not that the Democrats have not noticed.

"Yes, the Republicans are making a push," Blevins said. "Charlie Copeland, their state chair, is a former senator. I think it's always been his dream to take over the Senate."

While the Republicans are working to fill up their ballot, they have also put Dave Burris and Kim Stevenson, two experienced political operatives, on their state Senate staff.

"That's not why they were hired. They're good writers and good communicators and good at constituent service," Lavelle said.

Sure, and Bill Clinton did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.

If the Republicans want to get to the majority, they not only have to pick off some Democratic seats but keep the ones they have, and there are Republicans who are potentially vulnerable in 2016, namely, Cathy Cloutier, who comes from a Democratic district in Brandywine Hundred, and Dave Lawson, who squeaked to re-election in 2012 with 51 percent of the vote.

The Republicans know it, and the Democrats know it.

"Those would be priorities. I would hope we have candidates in every race. I'd like us to get back up to 13. I think that's a better number," Blevins said.

The struggle for the majority might not even be over when the election is over.

There are four state senators running mid-term for another office -- Bethany Hall-Long for lieutenant governor, Bob Marshall for mayor and Bryan Townsend for congressman for the Democrats and Colin Bonini for governor for the Republicans -- and they would have to be replaced by a special election if they won.

Hall-Long is regarded as the likeliest to make it, with the special election afterward the fiercest.

Hall-Long barely clung to her seat in 2014 by polling 51 percent, although it should be noted it was a big Republican year, and presumably the spouse of the Democratic candidate in a special election would have the sense not to go out in the dark of night and filch Republican campaign signs.

Still, for the Republicans to get to the majority, it might be a seat or so too far.