Posted: Nov. 2, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The political brushfire that appears to be sweeping across the country -- a smoky burn of anti-Washington and anti-Republican sentiment demanding change -- is running into something of a firewall here in Delaware.

The firewall has a name to it, actually two names. It is U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper and U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Democratic-Republican combination that is too popular at home to be viewed as part of the problem, but rather part of a solution.

Voters are not rushing to the polls on Tuesday to turn out either Carper or Castle, both of them ex-governors with reservoirs of good will that comes from holding statewide office for decades.

Without a target at the top of the ticket, voter anger is not what it could be. More likely, people will be using their votes to send get-well wishes to Castle, on the mend from a mini-stroke in September.

"The two of them are where Delaware is. We are moderate-to-liberal on social issues, especially now that New Castle County dominates so much, and fiscally we're conservative," said James R. Soles, a political scientist retired from the University of Delaware.

"What's happening in the country isn't going to have any impact in Delaware, except if the Democrats win the close ones, then I'd say we got a smidgen."

The state is left with essentially a local election and only scarce opportunities to vote for change -- not with Carper and Castle, along with Democratic Treasurer Jack A. Markell and Republican Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr., all appearing to be rocketing toward re-election.

The voters will get a new attorney general no matter what, electing either Democrat Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III or Republican Ferris W. Wharton to take over from Carl C. Danberg, the Democrat appointed last year to finish out the term of Republican M. Jane Brady when she became a judge.

The state Senate is a virtual lock to remain under Democratic control. The state House of Representatives has only the barest of outside chances to swing from a Republican majority to a Democratic one -- the political equivalent of a hail-Mary pass to switch six seats.

Still, the state Democrats are doing what they can to capitalize on a political mood they believe is favorable to their side. The party's field operatives on Election Day will be wearing t-shirts with "Organize Delaware" on the front and a photo of the president on the back with the words, "Send George W. Bush a message, vote Democrat."

"When have you ever seen an election when a party puts a picture of the opposing president on the back of a t-shirt?" cracked John D. Daniello, the Democratic state chair.

Regardless of the political mood, the Democrats have the numbers on their side in a state where the trend in voter registration relentlessly is moving their way.

Since the last non-presidential election in 2002 -- when voters similarly were choosing a senator, representative, attorney general, treasurer and auditor -- the registration has jumped from roughly 520,000 voters to 558,000 voters.

Of those 38,000 new voters, an overwhelming 22,000 of them are Democrats and an underwhelming 3,000 of them are Republicans, with the rest unaffiliated or minor-party voters. The electorate stands at 44 percent Democratic, 32 percent Republican and 24 percent others.

The registration numbers do not necessarily intimidate the Republicans, because what really matters is the turnout, and the Republicans customarily get more of their voters to the polls than the Democrats do.

In 2002, for example, 50 percent of the Republican voters came out, while only 45 percent of the Democrats did, and the Republicans had a very good year. Their superior effort accounted for Brady's photo-finish return as attorney general and a pickup of three seats in the state House.

Both parties have furious get-out-the-vote drives in the works this year.

The Democrats are concentrating on motivating their under-performing areas -- districts with high Democratic registration but notoriously low turnout -- places that cost them their shot at picking off Brady in 2002 and nearly lost them the governorship in 2004, when Ruth Ann Minner barely slipped into a second term with 51 percent of the vote. Those anti-Bush t-shirts are supposed to help.

The Republicans are setting up a massive phone bank operation, running Friday through Monday, to contact their voters. They intend to make 78,000 calls, according to an e-mail request for volunteers from state Republican Chair Terry A. Strine.

"If we get a bigger percentage of our votes out, we win," Daniello said.

"That is simple math. That is not new math for John Daniello," countered Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman. "But Delaware voters tend to surprise you. Republicans are an optimistic bunch. Otherwise, they wouldn't be Republicans."

The race most likely to be decided by turnout is the election for attorney general, where the parties are in a ferocious clash, the Republicans digging in to stop a family dynasty before it starts and the Democrats determined to show that yes, as a matter of fact, they do own this state.

Each side is on track to spend more than a million dollars, an unheard-of amount for a second-tier contest. There are political spots on Philadelphia television, the candidates are slugging it out in debates and double-dare-you press conferences, and celebrity boosters are being imported, like John Walsh from "America's Most Wanted" for Biden on Thursday and New York Gov. George E. Pataki for Wharton on Saturday.

The Democrats also expect to rely on their new and improved get-out-the-vote effort in key legislative races. They are defending the state Senate seats of two Democrats targeted by the Republicans -- state Sen. David P. Sokola of Pike Creek Valley and state Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr. of Clayton -- and also looking to pick up state House seats.

Currently the Senate Democrats have a 13-8 majority, and the House Republicans have an edge of 25-15 with one independent.

The Democrats would have a good Election Day if they elect Biden, preserve Sokola and Vaughn, and take some of the open state House seats with Gerald L. Brady in Wilmington and Robert E. Walls and Jeanine Kleimo in Kent County.

The Democrats would have a great day if they also knock off some Republican House incumbents they have targeted, namely Speaker Terry R. Spence in Christiana, state Rep. Robert J. Valihura Jr. in Brandywine Hundred and state Rep. William R. "Bobby" Outten in Kent County.

The Republicans would have a good day if they elect Wharton, keep their majority in the state House and claim a Senate seat by ousting Sokola with Michael J. Ramone. It would be a great day if they also unseat Vaughn and lose no House seats at all, winning open seats with Gary C. Linarducci in Wilmington and Donald A. Blakey and Ulysses S. Grant in Kent County.

Despite a reliance on polling and registration figures, elections are less political "science" than they are the course of very human events. They are a churn of talent, hard work, mistakes, missed opportunities, timing and even luck.

There is no better example than what is happening in Sussex County in the re-election campaign of John C. Atkins, a Republican state representative from Millsboro.

Atkins won his seat in 2002 in what was supposed to be a Democratic district on the strength of the strong Republican turnout and a flawed Democratic candidate. He kept it in 2004 when the Democrats essentially gave him a free ride by putting up Barbara A. Lifflander, a weak opponent, and he floated to victory with 70 percent of the vote.

Atkins was on his way this year to another easy win in a rematch with Lifflander, until he got himself arrested early Sunday morning in a domestic dispute with his wife Heather. Since then, the Democrats have been kicking themselves for not fielding a better candidate against him.

Atkins runs a trash collection business called Blue Hen Dispose-all, and he was known to say that he wishes he had named it John Atkins Dispose-all, because all of his trash receptacles at people's homes would have been the equivalent of thousands of John Atkins yard signs.

"That's the biggest political mistake I ever made," he said, although he probably is not saying it any more.