Posted: March 1, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Delaware politics was on snooze. The General Assembly was taking a break for budget hearings, and the only guy campaigning was U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., but he was off in New Hampshire or South Carolina or someplace, looking for Democratic presidential votes in an election that was still far, far away.

Then state Rep. Wayne A. Smith, the Republican majority leader from Brandywine Hundred, announced Tuesday evening he was quitting, and it was as though he gave the political crowd a collective hotfoot, because ever since then people have been hopping around, not exactly sure what they were doing but sure they should be doing something.

There is a special election to be won. It does not have a date yet, and neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have a candidate, but never mind. Campaigns are blindly lurching to life, anyway, in the best tradition of the-sky-is-falling-the-sky-is-falling politics.

Special elections are the X-games of campaigns. Nothing is to be held back. The voters in the 7th Representative District, about 14,600 of them living south of Naamans Road in sturdy suburban neighborhoods, the artsy Ardens and parts of blue-collar Claymont, are about to experience a whole new kind of March Madness.

Because this is a race that either party can win. Although the Republicans have owned Brandywine Hundred, except for Claymont, in the area's incarnation as a bedroom community for the DuPont Co., lately it has become more hospitable to Democrats as DuPont has shed jobs and retirees.

The Democrats plucked away one of the four Brandywine Hundred representative districts in 2004, when state Rep. Diana M. McWilliams won an open seat. The Republicans have no intentions of losing this new vacancy, while the Democrats see Smith's departure as a gift too good to pass up.

"It's a shame he's leaving," laughed John D. Daniello, the Democratic state chair who lives in the district. "It presents a challenge to both parties. I think it's winnable. If we continue the momentum that we had for '06, bringing it to the special election, we'll be fine."

The Republicans are conceding nothing. "It's a seat we can hold. We take nothing for granted. Neither party is taking anything for granted. It can continue to be ours if we combine the right candidate with a strong organization, and that's what we intend to do," said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the national committeewoman.

Smith created this mad hatter's race by deciding to forsake the legislature, effective March 12, to run a health care trade association. House Speaker Terry R. Spence, a Republican, has 30 days thereafter to call for an election, which must be held 10 or 11 days later, according to state law.

The outcome will not alter the control of the House of Representatives, where the Republicans outnumber the Democrats 23-18, but it is a critical contest, nevertheless. The Democrats have made gains in the past two elections and are threatening to take over in 2008.

Events are proceeding at breakneck speed. The Republicans already have formed a search committee for candidates, and its members expect to conduct interviews Friday evening -- at least to winnow the field and possibly to settle on someone.

"It's probable that the nominee will emerge," said Donovan Carbaugh, the chair of the Republicans' search committee.

Neither party will disclose the names of potential candidates, but neither party is particularly good at keeping secrets, either.

The Republicans are said to be considering: James T. Bowers, who has been Smith's campaign manager; Philip Lavelle, the brother of state Rep. Gregory F. Lavelle and the zoning chair for the Council of Civic Associations of Brandywine Hundred; and Judy Travis, known for her work with Christmas Stockings for Soldiers, which sends gifts to military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Democrats appear to be focusing on: David D. Brady, a former state representative who lost to Smith in 2002 when their districts were combined in redistricting; Carl Colantuono, who ran against Smith in 2006; and Patricia Morrison, who challenged state Sen. Catherine A. Cloutier in 2006.

The district's registration as of March 1 gives a 500-vote advantage to the Republicans. The voters are divided 40 percent Republican, 36 percent Democratic and 24 percent others.

As loyal as the district has been to Smith, sticking with him since 1990, it veered Democratic for both president and governor in 2004, going with John F. Kerry and Ruth Ann Minner.

Recent races for attorney general show how persuadable these voters can be. In 2006 they favored Republican Ferris W. Wharton, who lost to Democrat Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III. In 2002 they wanted Democrat Carl Schnee, who lost to Republican M. Jane Brady as she won her third term.

There is no doubt the parties will be out in force to persuade them.

"A special election is the most exciting event on the political calendar. Everyone wants to be involved. You're all together in one small spot, you're all focused and quickly become acquainted with the neighborhoods," Rakestraw said.

"It is all hands on deck."