Posted: Nov. 3, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The voters came as close as they could to replicating James T. Vaughn Sr., the late state senator, when they went to the polls Saturday in a special election that saw them flock overwhelmingly to the candidate he had endorsed in his last public act.

They said good-bye to Vaughn by saying hello to Bruce C. Ennis, whose background as a fellow Democrat and retired state trooper made him a version of Vaughn revisited. Vaughn had 27 years in the state Senate, while Ennis has 25 years in the state House of Representatives, and they came from sister towns, Vaughn from Clayton and Ennis from Smyrna.

Ennis defeated Republican Joanne M. Christian, the Appoquinimink school board president who also ran on the Independent Party of Delaware ballot, 68 percent to 32 percent, in the 14th Senatorial District, which stretches across the New Castle County and Kent County line.

Ennis called his election "a testament to Jim Vaughn" in brief remarks to a packed house of Democrats who came from all over Delaware to celebrate their victory at a makeshift campaign headquarters in Middletown.

The race was the Democrats to lose. They had a 4,500-vote advantage in the district, which split 45 percent Democratic, 31 percent Republican and 24 percent others.

"I'm obviously happy," said John D. Daniello, the state Democratic chair. "There's a ton of people here, and they all did what they were supposed to. I'm proud of the ground game."

The Republicans tried to capitalize on the population advantage in New Castle County by selecting Christian, who lives in Townsend on that side of the line, but it was not to be. With Ennis, the district has another Kent County senator.

The Democrats were so confident going into the race that U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper used the Jefferson Jackson Dinner, the state party’s premier annual event held Monday in Wilmington, to talk up the candidacy of William J. Carson, known by the nickname “Lumpy,” already in place to run once Ennis won and opened up his House seat for another special election.

Not only did the voters stick with the kind of senator they knew, but they ensured that the Senate would keep its character as the last political power base for an anachronistic breed of downstate conservative Democrats from Kent and Sussex counties. The Democrats maintained control of the Senate with a 13-8 majority.

If the Republicans had won, it would have been a spectacular upset, particularly in a state that is trending increasingly Democratic. The Republicans have not taken a Senate seat from the Democrats since state Sen. F. Gary Simpson, a Milford Republican, picked up one in 1998.

The Republicans tried to undermine Ennis by battering him with campaign literature questioning his effectiveness and commitment to open government, but they could not loosen his strong ties to the community, where he is known not only as a legislator but a volunteer firefighter.

"My experience in the General Assembly and helping constituents bode me well. There was some negativity in the campaign. I don't think she personally brought it, her campaign leaders brought it, and people in Delaware don't like negative campaigns," Ennis said.

The Republicans acknowledged Ennis was able to make the most of his community connections. "The stakeholders came out. The Ennis people with deep roots in Delaware turned out," said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman. 

Both parties fretted mightily over voter turnout. With Punkin Chunkin to the south and the University of Delaware football game to the north, they feared the middle of the state would empty out, and for whatever reason, it did. 

By late afternoon, the voters were so few and far between that both sides were cautiously pessimistic. In a special election with no overriding issue to drive up the turnout, there was only so much the parties could do. About 20 percent of the district's 32,200 voters went to the polls. 

“It’s a special election. You lose your registration edge. It’s all about who gets their vote out,” said state Sen. Patricia M. Blevins, the Democratic majority whip. 

“The numbers are tough. I have no great expectations,” said U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the state’s leading Republican officeholder.

One politician was so frustrated by the low voter turnout, he was pushed to quip, “The only other thing you can do is pay them.”