Posted: Feb. 11, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Lincoln Day dinner this year could be a little more symbolic than the Delaware Republicans would like.

They are a party divided against itself, not a good political place to stand.

The Republicans will gather Saturday evening in Dover for the event, one of their premier occasions. Officially it is the Kent County Lincoln Day dinner, but through the years it has grown to statewide proportions and significance, drawing hundreds of party members from all three counties.

The dinner falls during a rough spell for the Republicans, who are fractured and finger-pointing.

They had a dispiriting 2004 election that cost them the insurance commissioner's office and three seats in the state House of Representatives. They noisily broke ranks last month over a state pay-raise package that had party headquarters frothing against it while the legislative leadership sidestepped it and let it go through.

The Republicans also were stung earlier this week by the defection of a legislator turning independent, even if it was just state Rep. G. Wallace Caulk Jr., who is lightly regarded with a reputation for an erratic streak.

Caulk, a Kent County legislator since 1986, played the holier-than-thou card, saying he was bolting because of the shenanigans over the pay raises, but his ex-caucus mates trumped it, tattling that he was moving out of his district and would have to give up the seat, anyway.

The dinner also will be the Republicans' first mass meeting since a contest took shape for the election of a state chair at the party's convention in April, so it should be prime time to crank up a campaign that is already rattling.

Terry A. Strine, who became the state chair two years ago when nobody else wanted the job, is being challenged by Jeffrey E. Cragg, the New Castle County co-chairman whose opposition to Strine is a family calling.

The late Ernest E. Cragg, a Brandywine Hundred Republican chairman who was Jeff Cragg's father, used to say, "Terry Strine never fails to put himself between a dog and a fire hydrant."

It so happens that Strine can be something of a ready-fire-aim kind of guy. In addition to past backpedaling over the fluidity of his residency and Republican registration, he currently is dealing with outrage over contributions to Democrats from his family business concerns and sons. He says the sons are handling the business and make their own decisions.

For now, though, the campaign for the chairmanship is being waged over the state of the Republican Party, which has yet to figure out a way to counter the increasingly Democratic tendencies of the New Castle County voters who are driving the election returns in the most populous county and the state as a whole.

"The job of the state Republican chairman is to build the state party in Delaware," Jeff Cragg said. "I'm tired of watching Republicans lose races in Delaware. We need to make a change and start winning races."

Strine actually shares that view, except he does not think the way to make changes is by attacking his leadership.

"Divisiveness ain't going to do it," Strine said. "When a party has been losing elections, we need to do something differently. That means change. I am seen as a change agent. For a small number of people, that is not appreciated, although we all say we have to do better."

Pendulums swing in politics. That is its nature. There is nothing that would cure the Republicans so quickly as the election of a governor. It happened for the Democrats.

In the early 1980s, the only Democrats among nine statewide officeholders were U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and an obscure treasurer.

By the early 1990s, that treasurer was the personification of the Democrats' resurgence. Thomas R. Carper had turned himself into a congressman and refashioned his party, driving out Democrats who were giving it a bad name, and then used all of that to get himself elected governor, which he parlayed into two terms and his current seat in the U.S. Senate.

The problem for the Republicans, however, is they have no obvious champion like Carper to return them to the governorship, although House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith, Senate Minority Leader John C. Still III and state Sen. Charles L. Copeland would not mind being cast in that role. In excruciating contrast, the Democrats have an army of candidates led by Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. and Treasurer Jack A. Markell, already established in statewide office.

For the Republicans to get where they have to go, they could use someone with the spellbinding and just plain binding skills of Old Abe. Maybe this Lincoln Day dinner is aptly timed, after all.