Posted: Nov. 3, 2004
THE MIGHTY STREAK HAS STRUCK OUT
By Celia Cohen
The Streak is over, and it is New Castle County's fault.
Delaware is a presidential bellwether no more, but a Democratic blue state. The lower counties did their part, but New Castle County with two-thirds of the population drives the election returns.
The Streak lasted 12 elections in a row, the state making political history by voting every time for the presidential candidate who won -- from Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1996.
Party did not matter. Region did not matter. The state was comfortable with a Northeast Democrat like John F. Kennedy in 1960 or a California conservative like Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. As went the nation, so went Delaware.
It was possible to quibble whether The Streak really died in 2000. Sure, Republican George W. Bush moved into the White House while Delaware went for Democrat Albert Gore Jr., but Gore did win the popular vote. Perhaps the blame lay not with the electorate here, but with Florida or the Supreme Court.
Still, there was one disconcerting clue that The Streak was over four years ago, because of how decisively Delaware supported Gore, giving him a 13-point lead while the nationwide voting was so tight.
Now there are no illusions left. Delaware -- or more precisely, New Castle County -- voted Democratic for two presidential elections in a row as first Gore and now John F. Kerry lost to Bush.
"Delaware is now a Democratic state, and it has to do with the suburbs in New Castle County," said Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman, a former Democratic national committeeman for Delaware and Duke University law school lecturing fellow who wrote an article about the state's Democratic drift for the Delaware Lawyer magazine.
What happens now is New Castle County votes Democratic, while Kent County and Sussex County vote Republican. If the state is no longer a presidential bellwether, it nevertheless remains a microcosm of the country with Democratic blue upstate and Republican red downstate.
"It's clear to me that New Castle County is an urban county in the New York-Washington corridor, and downstate is not part of the corridor. It is rural America. Delaware is unfortunately a divided state," said Robert L. Byrd, a lobbyist and Democratic strategist who is a close adviser to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.
The divide has affected more than presidential politics here. It also determines statewide elections.
While Kerry was winning New Castle County and losing Kent County and Sussex County in the election Tuesday, so was Minner.
According to CNN exit polls, Kerry won 53 percent of the statewide vote by tallying 61 percent in New Castle County, 43 percent in Kent County and 39 percent in Sussex County. Minner's results showed the same pattern, as she won 51 percent of the statewide vote, 56 percent in New Castle County, 41 percent in Kent County and 45 percent in Sussex County.
This "Blue County/Red Counties Effect" has been settling in since 2000. In that year Democrat Thomas R. Carper, then the governor, ousted U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr., a five-term Republican, by carrying only New Castle County. In 2002 Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr. lost Kent County, the first time he failed to carry all three counties since he went to the U.S. Senate without Sussex County support in 1972.
The Democrats are winning in New Castle County by appealing to a base of women, minorities and labor unions. It was no accident that the Democrats packed their slate for six new seats on New Castle County Council with candidates who had labor ties. The party won all of those races plus the council president, giving it a majority of 11-2, and also elected a county executive.
That is what you call a Democratic county.
In addition, the Democrats picked off three upstate seats in the state House of Representatives, all with candidates who were women. By contrast, the Republicans easily held an open state House seat in Kent County.
"The problem for the Republicans is that Kent and Sussex Counties are only one-third of the vote, and the numbers in New Castle County are getting more and more difficult," said Glenn C. Kenton, a former Republican secretary of state for Gov. Pierre S. du Pont from 1977 to 1985.
"The Republicans had plenty of money, they were well-oiled organizationally, and it was to no avail," Kenton said.
If anybody deserved to wake up nervous the day after the election, it was Attorney General M. Jane Brady and Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr. Both are statewide Republicans, and both are up for election in 2006.
"I would be feeling like an endangered species," Kaufman said.