Posted: March 3, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

A prime conversation piece appeared in the basement office of House Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan, just as the Delaware General Assembly began its new session in Dover in January.

It was a poster bursting with the hope of milk and honey and the Promised Land of leaving behind the political wilderness and the Legislative Hall basement. It showed an oversized picture of Gilligan, a Stanton-area representative who has led the Democratic caucus for 10 years, all of them in the minority.

"Speaker Gilligan," the poster read. "Yes, We Can Do It!"

House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith, a Brandywine Hundred Republican, had his 9-year-old son Brad along when he saw the poster, and the boy promptly scoffed, "No way!"

Brad's father was not any kinder. "At least Bob is getting to indulge in his fantasy for free. Most men his age have to pay $2.35 a minute," Smith quipped.

This is the legislature at play. Incredibly, though, it also signals that the legislature could be in play. This sounds like heresy. Leap years come and go, blue moons come and go, entire decades come and go, and the legislature persists under split control with the Senate run by the Democrats and the House of Representatives by the Republicans.

The Democrats have been the majority in the 21-member Senate since 1973, maintaining a 13-8 edge that has been stable since 1998. The Republicans have been the majority in the 41-member House since 1984, currently holding onto a 26-15 margin after dropping three seats in 2004. The Republican total includes Frederica Rep. G. Wallace Caulk Jr., who was elected as a Republican but recently changed his registration to independent.

In these very early days of the 2006 election cycle, the unthinkable is being thought. The Democrats made their point jovially with Gilligan's poster. The Republicans made theirs more formally at a Lincoln Day dinner last month in Dover.

"For 32 years, the Republicans have served in the minority. It is our goal, our aim to return control of the Senate to the Republicans in the next two election cycles," said Senate Minority Leader John C. Still III, a Dover Republican. He added somewhat wistfully, "Easier said than done."

For the Republicans in particular, taking over the Senate would be sweet, a reversal of their struggles in a state that has been favoring the Democrats more often than not since the early 1990s. For Still himself, it certainly would not hurt his ambition to run for governor.

Both parties are banking on recent voting trends in their desires to flip control.

The Republicans have watched downstate voters in Kent County and Sussex County increasingly go their way and figure it is only a matter of time before they take over Senate districts, the way they already have swamped the House districts there. Of the eight downstate senators, five are Democrats.

The Democrats accordingly are looking upstate to New Castle County, the most populous of the state's three counties, to bring up their numbers in the House. The steepening Democratic tilt of the voters upstate is the prime reason why the Democrats hold six of nine statewide offices, including the governor and both U.S. senators, and why the Democrats believe the House could be within reach.

It has not gone unnoticed by either party that Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner in 2004 carried 11 of the 13 House districts currently held by upstate Republicans.

Voting trends are not enough, however. Flipping a chamber also is going to take what state Republican Chairman Terry A. Strine calls "the right retirements and the right candidates."

Legislative seats rarely change hands. Incumbency is a powerful tool, providing lawmakers with name recognition, the opportunity to build support by catering to constituents and the facility to collect campaign contributions. In addition,  the majority gets to strengthen itself at the beginning of each decade by controlling reapportionment, the redrawing of district lines to account for population shifts.

As Gilligan, the House minority leader, put it, "The only reason the Republicans are in the majority is they did reapportionment. The voters didn't select them, they selected the voters."

Both parties know the model they must follow to make gains. The Democrats used it in 2004 when they picked up three House seats, all in New Castle County, by capitalizing on two Republican retirements and by knocking off a fading Republican incumbent in a heavily Democratic district.

The upshot is that possible retirements and recent voting trends are being studied as the parties choose their targets for the 2006 election.

In the Senate, where the members serve staggered four-year terms, the Democrats will be defending nine of the 11 seats on the ballot. In the House, where all members serve two-year terms, the Republicans will be defending 26 of the 41 seats up for election.

The fate of the Senate rests largely on retirement. All eyes are on Sen. Thurman G. Adams Jr., a Bridgeville Democrat, and Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., a Clayton Democrat, to see what they will do. Not that they are saying.

Adams, the Senate president pro tem, won his first election in 1972 and shares the title of the longest-serving legislator in Delaware history with Gilligan. Asked whether he will run again in 2006, Adams said, "I haven't gotten that far, truthfully."

Vaughn has been in the Senate since 1980 and saw his son attain the high reaches of the judiciary last year by becoming the Superior Court's president judge. He conceded he has had thoughts of retirement, saying, "I'm struggling with a pair of bad legs. I'm not sure I'll run, but I'm not sure I won't."

The Republicans also are looking at the seats of Sen. David P. Sokola, a Pike Creek Valley Democrat, because he was re-elected in 2002 with a meager 51 percent of the vote, and state Sen. Nancy W. Cook, a Kenton Democrat, because her district is downstate.

The Republicans need three seats to climb into the Senate majority, but they also have one they could have to defend. State Sen. Dori A. Connor, a Penn Acres Republican, comes from an area with serious Democratic tendencies.

The Democrats need six seats to win the House and seem patient enough to whittle away at the Republican majority. The likeliest targets in 2006 are Speaker Terry R. Spence, a Stratford Republican, and Rep. Vincent A. Lofink, a Caravel Farms Republican, who both come from districts with registrations that favor the Democrats.

The Democrats also are hoping lightning will strike for some of their House challengers in 2006, believing they could be aided by a strong statewide ticket. It is expected to be topped by U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, state Treasurer Jack A. Markell and perhaps a Biden, if Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III runs for attorney general.

In addition, there is little doubt that Minner will do everything she can to keep the Senate in Democratic control and build up the House. If the Republicans overran the legislature, the last two years of her governorship would not be pretty.

No one would be surprised if the 2006 election left the Senate Democratic and the House Republican. Still, for the first time in decades, it is surprising to think that if the legislature flipped, it would not be much of a surprise, at all.