Posted: Dec. 6, 2011


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Just when the Delaware Republicans looked to be pulling themselves together, the Tea Party strikes again.

This time around, it could cost the Republicans a state Senate seat in Sussex County and effectively crush their first legitimate shot in 40 years at winning a majority in the chamber.

This situation is nowhere near as high profile as it was in the 2010 election season. The whole country was watching then as the Tea Partiers toppled the Republican regulars, especially the spectacle of Mike Castle's wipeout in the Senate primary against Christine O'Donnell.

In a state known for its moderate politics, it was doom. It meant the Republicans kissed good-bye to the senatorial election, conceivably the congressional race and probably the state treasurer's race. The party was so decimated that going after anything with a high profile was essentially out of reach in 2012.

Still, the way back to respectability can take many forms, and aiming for the state Senate is nothing to be ashamed of. Not when the Republicans lack any power base at all in Legislative Hall in Dover, where there are a Democratic governor, Democratic lieutenant governor, Democratic Senate and Democratic House of Representatives.

The Democrats control the Senate 14-7, but the Republicans potentially can thread their way to the majority in the next election or so because of redistricting realignments and eventual retirements.

One crucial element is a newly-drawn district in eastern Sussex County, the 6th Senate District taking in Milton, Lewes, Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach.

"We definitely need to win the seat," said Gary Simpson, the Senate's Republican minority leader who is from Sussex County himself.

The Republicans had high hopes. Sussex is their best county, and although the Democrats in the Senate did what they could to tilt the district their way -- putting about 1,000 more Democratic than Republican voters in there -- the Republicans were confident they could win with the right candidate.

They thought they had one, too. They courted Jim Ford, the mayor of Lewes, and he considered it but decided against it. His decision was disappointing but not disheartening.

"Jim Ford would have won this race hands down, but it's still a good district for the Republicans," said Bill Lee, the ex-judge who ran for governor and had two stints as the Sussex County Republican chair.

It is never wise to underestimate the capacity of a party out of power to keep itself there. This Senate district could become a case study.

It began innocuously with an announcement late last week from Ernie Lopez that he would run for the seat. Lopez made a name for himself in Republican circles as a personable and tireless campaigner when he ran for the New Castle County Council president in 2004. He works for the University of Delaware and moved to Sussex when he was transferred there five years ago.

Lopez had the field to himself for about a day, when his announcement was followed by one from Glen Urquhart, the Tea Party Republican who was the 2010 congressional candidate. Urquhart has been casting about for an office to run for in 2012 -- the U.S. Senate, governor, the state Senate -- but Lopez apparently galvanized him into entering the state Senate race.

It did take Urquhart a little while to figure out which state Senate race. His announcement mistakenly had him running in the 8th Senate District upstate, not the 6th, and had a lot of Republicans smirking before he belatedly corrected it.

"Does Urquhart know what district he's running for?" Jud Bennett wrote to the Coastal Network, his vast e-mail list with a largely Republican membership.

The last thing the Republicans need is a primary that could split the party and give comfort to the Democrats, who already appear to be settling into this state Senate campaign with Andy Staton, a real estate agent from Rehoboth Beach.

Normally a party will turn to its county chair to try to sort out a primary, but not here. Urquhart is the Sussex Republican chair.

Urquhart did not return telephone and e-mail messages left for him over two days. This has all the makings of a man determined not to have to explain himself.

The Republicans have been having their troubles in Sussex County. They have a sheriff who thinks he is the next best thing to J. Edgar Hoover, and the attorney general is looking into a dust-up between the sheriff and Vance Phillips, a Republican county councilman. Now this.

"A primary generally does not work well. We have every opportunity to win this seat if we don't shoot ourselves in the foot," said Simpson, the Senate minority leader.

For now, it is open season on Republican toes in Sussex County.