Posted: April 3, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Republicans appear to have more at stake than the Democrats in two special elections, and not just because it is the Republicans who are defending both vacancies in the state House of Representatives.

The outcome could have something to say about the mood of the Republican state convention next month and the selection of party officers there.

The Democrats have only the two elections to focus on. They install their leadership for four-year terms, which are not up until 2009, but the Republicans vote for their new officials every two years.

When the Republicans convene Saturday, May 19, in Dover, the special elections will be fresh in their minds -- with the first set for Saturday, April 14, in Brandywine Hundred and the second tentatively to be held on Saturday, May 5, in south central Sussex County.

A pair of victories -- on top of a special election that kept a Kent County Levy Court seat Republican in Janaury -- would go toward salving the sting of the party's lackluster showing in 2006.

The Republicans have taken their lumps under Terry A. Strine, the state chair who is in his second term after assuming the post in 2003. While Strine is hardly responsible for the surge in New Castle County's Democratic registration that has become the dominant factor in statewide elections, the Republicans have lost offices that they conceivably could have held during his tenure.

A vacancy for insurance commissioner, which had been Republican, went Democratic in 2004, and the Republicans lost a heartbreaker in an open race for attorney general in 2006 -- made worse because a Biden won it.

In addition, the 2004 and 2006 elections also cost the Republicans six seats in the state House, their last base in Legislative Hall, where the governor, lieutenant governor and the state Senate are all under Democratic control.

Strine has notified party members he is interested in another term, but he could be challenged. Thomas S. Ross, the Wilmington Republican chair, is thinking about running, although he has not committed to it yet.

Strine called the last two campaign seasons a "learning curve" and said he would like the opportunity to be there in 2008, when the open races for president and governor give the Republicans their best chance in years. Delaware has not voted Republican for those two offices since 1988.

The Republicans' attitude toward Strine no doubt would be colored by the results of the special elections, and he certainly would like to win them. "That's our goal," he said.

The Republicans began the 2007 legislative session with a 23-18 edge in the House. They would be down to a nervous one-vote margin if they lost the races in the 7th Representative District in Brandywine Hundred and the 41st Representative District in Sussex County -- not to mention that their majority is expected to be threatened in 2008, anyway.

The Brandywine Hundred seat traditionally has been Republican and ought to stay that way with a 500-vote registration edge, although the Democrats have made inroads in the region and intend to put up a fight.

The Republican candidate is James T. Bowers, the next-door neighbor of Wayne A. Smith, the former Republican majority leader who created the opening by resigning last month to run a health care trade association.

The party is backing Bowers with a ferocious organizing effort, but the Democrats like their chances enough for U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper and four other statewide Democrats to host a fund raiser Wednesday evening for Bryon H. Short, their candidate.

The Sussex County seat came open last week with the resignation of John C. Atkins, a Republican who quit before the House could expel him for misconduct. Both parties still are searching for candidates. The Democrats have nearly a 500-vote advantage in the district, but it could be a mirage because of the county's demonstrated preference to vote Republican.

The special elections also could have a bearing on the Republican election for vice chair, a post currently held by Phyllis M. Byrne of Sussex County. While Byrne says she has not decided about seeking another term, Sussex County Councilman Vance C. Phillips decidedly is eying it.

Phillips has made himself a presence in Sussex County, where he was elected to the county council in 1998. He is known statewide for his Crab Feast & Watermelon Extravaganza every August at Trap Pond, and he has plans to upgrade it further by offering to turn over the proceeds to the Republican state and county committees, instead of stashing them in his own campaign account.

Even though Phillips still is recovering from popping his Achilles tendon during a racquetball game in February, he volunteered Saturday morning in a literature drop for Bowers in Brandywine Hundred and then hustled back to Millsboro for an organizational meeting in the afternoon for the Sussex special election.

Phillips says he wants to help the party strengthen its representative district committees -- "I'm not about titles, I'm about trying to help organize" -- and those two special elections are giving him the chance to show he means it, snapped tendon and all.