Posted: Nov. 7, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

There were white party tents set up, a band playing and Fat Rick's Barbecue cooking Tuesday afternoon at the Wilmington Riverfront, the staging area on Election Day for the most massive get-out-the-vote drive by the Delaware Democratic Party that anyone could remember.

The Democrats had 32 "Vote Vans" lined up like taxis at Grand Central Station to ferry about 500 volunteer canvassers from an alphabet-soup of labor unions -- asbestos workers, auto workers, black trade unionists, carpenters, electrical workers, laborers, plumbers, public employees, steel workers and so on.

The canvassers swarmed through Democratic neighborhoods in Wilmington, Claymont, Elsmere, Bear and New Castle with instructions to "knock & drag" -- bang on doors and get the voters to the polls. The houses already had been primed the day before with door-hangers that read, "Send George W. Bush a message. Vote Democrat."

This year the Democrats were determined to capitalize on voter unrest with a Republican president and a Republican Congress scarred by war and scandal to bring out their vote. It worked.

The Democratic drive was enough to make an attorney general out of Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III after a grueling political war of attrition with Republican Ferris W. Wharton, a clash so ferocious that the candidates emerged as the standard-bearers of their parties.

It also pushed U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper and state Treasurer Jack A. Markell into stratospheric poll numbers, putting them at 70 percent, and it dragged down the winning margins for U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle and state Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr., Republicans up for re-election.

Castle, who typically polled the way Carper and Markell just did, was held to 57 percent against Democrat Dennis Spivack and two minor-party candidates.

"If there was ever a year for the Democrats, this is it," Castle said. 

The Democrats also picked up legislative seats, although overall the General Assembly stayed under split control with the Democrats in the majority in the Senate and the Republicans in the House of Representatives.

The Senate Democrats kept their 13-8 margin with no change in the chamber's membership at all, despite Republican runs at state Sen. David P. Sokola, a Pike Creek Valley Democrat, and state Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., a Clayton Democrat.

The House Republicans' majority dwindled from 25-15 with one independent, as the Democrats picked up three seats by winning two open seats and surprisingly defeating state Rep. Stephanie A. Ulbrich, a Newark Republican. The chamber stands at 23 Republicans and 18 Democrats.

The new Democratic members are Gerald L. Brady in Wilmington, John Kowalko in Newark and Robert E. Walls in Kent County. Brady and Kowalko were significant beneficiaries of the union-backed voter drive.

In a bright spot for Republicans, they elected Donald A. Blakey to an open House seat in Kent County, making him the first African-American legislator from below the canal.

Last year state Rep. Robert F. Gilligan, the Democratic minority leader, galvanized his party with a challenge to win "Six in '06" -- six seats in 2006 -- to gain the majority, but he was not complaining after making it halfway there.

"We didn't get to our six, so it'll take two years to get there. We went from 12 [seats in 2002] to 15 to 18, so another three gets to 21," Gilligan said.

For years the Delaware Democrats had the raw advantage of registration numbers, with the state's electorate currently divided 44 percent Democratic, 32 percent Republican and 24 percent others, but the Republicans countered by doing a better job of getting their people to the polls.

With the Democrats' get-out-the-vote drive this year, it is no wonder that Republicans resent unions.

"The two best-organized groups in the country are Republicans and unions," quipped Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker, a Democrat who was not on the ballot this year.

"They have unions, and the unions are off today. Paid union workers make good volunteers," said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman.

What was even more extraordinary about the mammoth grinding of the political machinery was its focus. The top races for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives were never in doubt. This election was about what was happening farther down the ballot for attorney general.

Both sides blew away any semblance of restraint on campaign financing. They made creative use of the election laws in ways that could have ramifications on elections for years to come, and they turned the race for attorney general into a spending spree that probably will top $3 million when all the bills are paid.

"It's the most incredible election I've ever seen -- forget it's my son -- that there's nothing going on but the attorney general," said U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic father of the candidate.

Actually, it was impossible to forget this election was about his son. It was all the election was about. For the Republicans, it has been bad enough that they have been reduced to only two of the nine statewide officeholders -- Castle and Wagner -- and they recoiled at having a Biden family dynasty rising at their expense, too.

Next to attorney general, the most sulfurous race was probably the state Senate contest in Pike Creek Valley between Dave Sokola, a 16-year Democrat, and Michael P. Ramone, a repeat Republican challenger who nearly won four years ago but was dispatched handily this time.

The two of them went after each other with character-assassination charges like "deceitful" and "dishonest," and voter interest was aroused enough that one heavily-trafficked polling place at Linden Hill Elementary School drew not just both candidates, but also Castle and Wagner to troll for votes.

Sokola was already there when Ramone arrived. Unbelievably, they greeted each other and shook hands. They said they came to terms the evening before when they met at a Maplecrest civic association meeting at the Mill Creek fire hall. Only in Delaware.

"He smacked me, I smacked him back. It's over," Ramone said.