Posted: April 23, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Republican Party, calling itself sick of losing, voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to re-elect Terry A. Strine for state chair and save its fighting for the Democrats, instead of tearing itself up with internal feuds.

Strine's victory over Jeffrey E. Cragg, the New Castle County Republican co-chair, was the outcome that was expected from the party's two-day state convention, held Friday and Saturday at the DoubleTree Hotel in Brandywine Hundred.

It gave Strine another two years at the head of the party and allowed him to put a first term fraught with self-inflicted growing pains behind him.

The Republicans were so eager to appear united that they sidestepped an announcement of the total vote.

The delegates cast their votes by seven geographic regions -- Wilmington, Brandywine, Christiana-Mill Creek, Colonial, Newark, Kent and Sussex -- and after Strine powered over the top in the first six regions, Sussex County Chair William Swain Lee moved to make the vote unanimous to avoid giving the count in his region, the only one that went for Cragg.

If the Sussex vote had been announced, however, it would have shown the convention going for Strine by 273-68, according to Sussex delegates who said their region would have cast 44 votes for Cragg and 31 votes for Strine.

"There was opposition in Sussex, but what we care about is winning elections," said Lee, the ex-judge who was the 2004 Republican candidate for governor. "Unity counts."

Strine was re-elected on his record for fund raising, his show of energy and his cultivation of a string of endorsements from elected officeholders and fellow party officials. He was nominated for re-election by W. Laird Stabler Jr., the retired national committeeman who is one of the Republicans' most revered figures.

Cragg shook hands with Strine after the election but never said a word. It was entirely in keeping with the mood of the Republicans, who desperately want to push aside any differences that would distract them from turning their fortunes around.

The Republicans had every right to a hangdog state of mind. The Democrats have been slaughtering them at the polls, winning the governorship for four terms in a row, electing both U.S. senators, carrying the state for the Democratic presidential candidate the last four times and holding six of the nine statewide offices.

Instead, the Republicans were saying, enough with losing. They did it by sticking together over Strine, overlooking the waffling he did in his first term about where he lives, how long he has been a Republican and why his family business interests contributed to Democratic candidates.

They did it by electing their other officers without opposition, installing Phyllis M. Byrne as vice chair, Thomas J. Shopa as treasurer and Cathy Murray as secretary.

They did it in speeches in favor of a proposal reconstituting the party leadership structure in New Castle County, where the increasingly Democratic electorate in the most populous of the three counties is gutting the Republicans' statewide chances. The leadership committee will shrink from 29 members to seven members, consolidating power in the regional chairs.

"Is this a perfect proposal? No," said Thomas S. Ross, the New Castle County Republican co-chair. "However, what I'm really uncomfortable with is losing elections."

Not all of the political signals were bright with unity. There was, for example, the sight of Thomas D. Byrne, the husband of new Vice Chair Phyllis Byrne, giving the nominating speech for Cragg, even though it was a foregone conclusion that Strine would win and Phyllis Byrne would be serving with him.

If the convention provided new influence for Strine, it did the same for Bill Lee. It was clear he has emerged as a party favorite from his campaign against Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the Democrat re-elected with a scant 51 percent of the vote.

Lee was everywhere -- wheedling unity out of the Sussex delegation, obliging the new party officers with nominating or seconding speeches, and providing a living example for changing the New Castle County party structure. Lee carried Kent and Sussex counties but lost New Castle County to Minner.

"This is not a fight that Kent and Sussex ought to decide," Lee said. "We have concerns for your political health, but we don't intend to tell you how to fix your party. . . . We can't carry this state without New Castle County."

The Republicans were not kidding themselves about their immediate future. They are going into 2006 against a powerhouse Democratic ticket led by U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, state Treasurer Jack A. Markell and probably Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the senator's son, for attorney general.

There was a lot of talk about the need to stop the Republican skid by re-electing Attorney General M. Jane Brady and Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr. or else face the prospect of having U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the former governor who routinely polls about 70 percent of the vote, as the last statewide Republican standing.

Determined as the Republicans were to stop losing, they lightened their convention with some humor, strictly partisan as it was.

Glenn L. Best, who ran unsuccessfully for the New Castle County Council, was asked to nominate Shopa for party treasurer, and he said he decided to do some research for his speech on what a treasurer should not do.

"I picked up my phone and called Joe Biden's office," Best quipped. It was a crack at Biden's expense about Roger D. Blevins III, the assistant treasurer sentenced to jail for stealing $412,000 from the senator's campaign.

In a final moment of levity, the College Republicans raffled off a showerhead molded in the face of Richard M. Nixon. ("I am not a drip!")

If a party can come back from Nixon, it probably can come back from anything -- even from losing in New Castle County.