Posted: March 20, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Republicans are picking up where they left off the last election season -- with a debate over how far to drive their party to the right in this moderately inclined state.

The Republicans who voted in the 2010 primary veered as far as they could. When Mike Castle gets called a RINO -- Republican in Name Only -- and beaten by Christine O'Donnell, this was an electorate that was not kidding around.

Now the party leadership could be going where the voters pointed. It seems that watching Joe Biden's old Senate seat stay comfortably in Democratic hands, namely the ones belonging to Chris Coons, was not considered a deterrent to a march rightward.

Nor were the Republicans' repeated shellackings over the years, an accumulation that has given the Democrats every statewide office, except auditor, along with control of the entire General Assembly. The electorate at large has not been kidding around, either.

The Republicans will be gathering at the end of April for their state convention, and the pivotal event could be the election for national committeewoman, the party officer who represents Delaware on the Republican National Committee along with the state chair and national committeeman.

The current one is Priscilla Rakestraw, whose tenure dating back to 1976 makes her the longest serving member on the national committee. She has been such an iconic presence that people could be excused for thinking GOP did not stand for Grand Old Party but Good Old Priscilla.

Word started circulating over the weekend that Rakestraw, a moderate Republican, would have competition from the right if she wanted to run for another four-year term.

It is coming from Ellen Barrosse, probably best known in political circles as the founder of A Rose and a Prayer, formed in 2005 with a mission to curtail abortions in Delaware through prayer, education and compassion. The organization is a familiar lobbying force in Dover with its prayer rallies outside Legislative Hall and its distribution of roses to legislators.

Barrosse is also an accomplished businesswoman. She took a one-woman shop and turned it into Synchrogenix Information Strategies, an international firm headquartered in Wilmington with 50 employees who draft the documents sent to regulatory agencies to get new drugs approved.

"We have to pull together to end one-party rule in Delaware," Barrosse said. "I admire her [Rakestraw] very much and her tenure and her perseverance. She's at the lit drops. She's given her life for the party. A lot of people in this state really respect her. In that regard, I'm kind of sad to be running against her. I think I can help the party. I speak business, and I speak social conservative."

It is a serious challenge to Rakestraw, serious enough to give her pause.

"I'm being urged to seek re-election from both national and local Republicans. I have willingly dedicated much of my life to the Republican Party and to our principles and our candidates. I want to make the right decision, both for the party and for me," Rakestraw said.

"My extensive experience and knowledge both on the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Delaware are an asset to everyone, and I'm proud of it."

If Barrosse took over as national committeewoman, it would distribute the party leadership between movement politics and practical politics.

There would be John Sigler, the state chair who is a past president of the National Rifle Association, and Barrosse from A Rose and a Prayer, and there also would be Greg Lavelle, the vice chair who is the state House minority leader, and Laird Stabler, the national committeeman who is a lawyer and a lobbyist.

Sigler and Lavelle are not up for re-election. Stabler is, but so far he is unopposed.

Barrosse has plenty of encouragement to run. A lot of it is coming from four cheerleaders who have been systematically trying to work themselves into the power circles of state politics. They are Charlie Copeland, the state Senate's former minority leader, Colin Bonini, a state senator, Michael Fleming, a past chair of the New Castle County Republicans, and Lavelle.

Copeland ran for lieutenant governor in 2008. Bonini ran for state treasurer in 2010. If they have been unable to advance by taking out Democrats, maybe a Republican will do.

Barrosse & Co. say her candidacy is not about conservative ideology but energizing the party.

"She's familiar enough with politics to know it's the art of the possible. She's committed to raising money for the Republican Party for the purpose of getting Republicans elected," Copeland said. "I think turnover in politics is healthy. Priscilla has done the party a great service for a long time, but I think we need a different set of skills right now."

Rakestraw got into politics as a DuPonter, working in human resources when the company was the colossus of Delaware. It spun out Republican candidates and operatives the way it spun out scientific patents, people like Russell Peterson, a governor (who later became a Democrat), Terry Spence, a speaker, and Dick Sincock, a chair of the Joint Finance Committee.

Rakestraw became the national committeewoman as Pete du Pont was campaigning for governor. It put her in the center of the party's glory days, highlighted by four consecutive terms of the governorship under du Pont and Castle, a congressional delegation often stacked toward the Republicans, and 24 years running of Republican control in the state House of Representatives.

Along the way, she was also elected to a New Castle County row office in 1992 but lost in 1996. The loss did not seem terribly significant at the time, but it was.

Rakestraw was caught up by the rise of the Democrats. Now she could be looking at the rise of the conservatives. This is not failure. It takes the utmost in political agility to be around long enough for the pounding of two tides.