Posted: Nov. 18, 2011


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

In ones and twos, the smallish crowd, their coats pulled close, arrived in the dark out of the rain to slip inside what was once an abandoned factory.

There was no secret handshake to get in. Things that start on the right are not good for this group. There was no password, either, but if there were, people probably would have been heard to mutter, Nelson Rockefeller.

This was a gathering of the Moderate Underground.

It took the form of a campaign fund-raiser for Liane Sorenson, the state Senate's Republican minority whip from Hockessin, when about 60 people met Wednesday evening at Timothy's restaurant, fashioned out of the interior of an old factory mill in Newark.

Sorenson and company are the last of their kind, more or less. They are moderate Republicans, a shrinking remnant from their heyday in the late 1980s, when they ran Delaware with moderate-to-mildly-conservative officials like Mike Castle as governor, Bill Roth as senator and Terry Spence -- a labor Republican, for heaven's sake -- as the speaker in the state House of Representatives.

Now they are dwarfed between the Democrats, the dominant power-holders with eight of the nine statewide offices and the General Assembly, and the Republican right in their own party.

Sorenson's next race in 2012 has all of the conviction of a last stand.

Redistricting, the once-a-decade reshuffling of the legislative lines for population purposes, has lumped together Sorenson and Dave Sokola, a Democratic state senator from Pike Creek Valley, in a single district.

Sorenson and Sokola like each other. More in sorrow than in anger, they have committed to the race against one another.

Their newly configured Eighth Senatorial District, stretching northward from Newark through Pike Creek Valley into Hockessin, looks like, well, actually, like the side view of a hand with the middle finger extended -- which is essentially what the map did to Sokola.

Not much of a surprise there. Sokola was one of the dissidents who failed to unseat Tony DeLuca, a fellow Democrat, as the Senate's president pro tem and resident tough guy. They went after the king and did not kill him.

The new district is almost entirely Sorenson's old district, further sweetened by a modest shift in voter registration numbers in her favor.

The new district is 38 percent Democratic, 34 percent Republican and 28 percent others, according to the November voter rolls. Sorenson's old district is 39 percent Democratic, 33 percent Republican and 28 percent others, while Sokola's old district is 41 percent Democratic, 32 percent Republican and 27 percent others.

The race is a top priority for the Republicans. For the first time in nearly 40 years, they are in striking distance of taking over the Senate in the next election or so because of redistricting and possible retirements. Sorenson's seat is critical if they are to overturn the Democratic majority, currently 14-7.

"This is going to be a headliner campaign. This is going to be one of the most important and one of the toughest races in the state," said Priscilla Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman, speaking at Sorenson's fund-raiser.

Both Sorenson and Sokola are tested campaigners. She kept her seat in 2008 in a huge Democratic year by 364 votes. He kept his seat in 2002 in a huge Republican year by 277 votes.

"This is going to be a tough year and a tough race," Sorenson said.

"It's virtually her current district. I know I have my work cut out for me," Sokola said.

In recent years, Sokola has benefited from the drift of New Castle County voters toward the Democratic Party as the Republican Party moved ever rightward, and Sorenson has survived through her moderate politics.

Sorenson was the only Senate Republican to vote for the new civil union law -- Sokola was the prime sponsor -- and in general is set apart from the "Row of No," that is, Colin Bonini, Joe Booth and Dave Lawson, the Senate's array of Republican conservatives in the back row. (The "Row" voted "no" on the budget. Sorenson voted "yes.")

So there at Sorenson's fund-raiser was the Moderate Underground, fighting for its life. Nick Manolakos and Mike Ramone, the only Republican state representatives to vote for civil unions, both attended.

Not that conservative Republicans were absent. Greg Lavelle, the House minority leader as well as the party's vice chair, was conspicuous in his attendance, because too much is at stake to stay away. Lend a helping hand, maybe keep a watchful eye.

As intense as the race between Sorenson and Sokola is expected to be, it is not supposed to turn ugly. Her name was not invoked in a fund-raising letter he sent out. Neither was his at her event. Moderation in all things.