Posted: Nov. 6, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Bruce Ennis most likely claimed his place in Delaware history Saturday when he won the special election that put him in the state Senate, no matter what he does there.

After 25 years in the state House of Representatives, Ennis was known as a steady and friendly legislator, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get retired state police captain, necessarily limited by spending almost all of his time in the minority and never finding his way into leadership.

By moving to the upper chamber, Ennis probably cemented the Democrats' majority there for another decade and beyond.

This is history on permanent rewind. The Democrats have run the chamber since 1973, when they took it in a secret deal with two Republican senators, who switched sides in exchange for plum assignments. It happened so long ago that Mike Castle was part of the Senate Republican caucus that fell into the minority.

The modern-day Republicans saw the special election as a potential foothold to start climbing out of this endless hole.

When Sen. Jim Vaughn Sr. resigned his seat from a Kent County/New Castle County district shortly before his death, his fellow Democrats had a 13-8 majority, and the Republicans thought they might have a shot at turning their fortunes around if they could cut into the Democratic margin in the special election.

Sen. Charlie Copeland, the Republican minority leader, suggested as much when he spoke last month at his party's premier fund-raiser, held each year at the Vicmead Hunt Club in Centreville.

"We're going to win this race. We're going to have nine seats in the Senate, and that's going to lead us in a couple years to the majority," Copeland said.

What Copeland said was not inconceivable. If the Senate Republicans won the special election and then kept all of their seats in 2008 -- a big "if" with Sens. Steve Amick and John Still both expected to be targeted -- and if there were eventually some retirements from Democratic senators in Sussex County, where the Republicans are stronger, it could have happened.

Instead, the Republicans were thumped. Ennis polled 68 percent, cruising to victory over Joanne Christian, the Appoquinimink school board president, and dousing the Republicans' expectations.

Winning the special election may have been more important than it looked.

"We did think this was a watershed election," said Sen. Patti Blevins, the Democratic majority whip.

"We're looking in the same direction to try to take the majority in a couple of years, but it's not easy," said Sen. Liane Sorenson, the Republican minority whip.

The critical election for both parties is 2010, because that General Assembly is the one that will redraw the legislative districts based on the next census. Whoever controls the chamber shapes the map -- which can lock up a majority for another 10 years.

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The victory in the special election will be cold comfort to the Democrats unless they win the next one to replace Ennis in the House. The Democrats there are in striking distance of the majority, 22-19, and cannot afford to give the seat away.

The Democrats have been almost as much of a permanent minority in the House as the Republicans in the Senate. Ronald Reagan was in his first term as president the last time the Democrats named the speaker.

The next special election has been called by House Speaker Terry Spence for Saturday, Dec. 8, in the 28th Representative District in the northeast corner of Kent County.

Often years go by without special elections, but this one will be the fifth of 2007, following one for the Kent County Levy Court, two for the House and this last one for the Senate, with the Democrats and Republicans tied at two victories each.

"I doubt we've ever held three special elections in the House before. It's not really the kind of record anyone here wanted to break," said Joe Fulgham, the Republican communications officer for the House.

So much for a so-called "off" year. The politicians are exhausted. Neither party is happy about running yet another campaign amid the wintry cold and the holiday season, but the Democrats are a little happier about it than the Republicans.

The Democrats are favored going into the race. Not only are they on a high after their Senate victory, but they hold a 2,500-vote registration edge over the Republicans in the House district, and Ennis rolled to his biggest margins there, carrying some election districts by better than 80 or 90 percent. In one election district, he clobbered Christian 112-9.

"We're really getting the hang of these things," quipped Abby Betts, the Kent County Democratic chair. "I'm not saying this is a walk in the park. It's still going to take a lot of work."

Both the Democrats and the Republicans have candidates ready to go. The Democrats are meeting Wednesday night and are expected to select William J. Carson, known as "Lumpy," who chairs the party committee in the district, and the Republicans settled Tuesday on Christine Malec, a member of the Smyrna school board.

Carson has the same sort of profile as Vaughn and Ennis -- a volunteer firefighter, active in the Little League, and not a retired state trooper himself but the son of one. Malec, like Christian, has school board experience.

It means each party is returning to the same well. The one for the Republicans looks a little drier than the Democrats'.