Posted: April 14, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Delaware Republicans were jolted to the core Saturday when they lost a Brandywine Hundred legislative seat in a special election that had the party's credibility on the line.

In an outcome that astonished both parties, Democrat Bryon H. Short dispatched Republican James T. Bowers in the race to replace former Republican Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith, who resigned from the state House of Representatives last month to run a health care trade association.

Short pulled off the upset with surprising ease, 53 percent to 47 percent, in a contest that drew about 30 percent of the 14,600 voters to the polls in the 7th Representative District. It was a mildly high turnout for a special election -- a sign of how important it was to both sides.

This was a race that the Republicans dared not lose, one that the Democrats saw could break the back of the other party.

From the outset, this was supposed to go the Republicans' way. Wayne Smith had won nine elections in a row here since 1990, and the party had a 500-vote edge in registration – not what it once was in the days when Brandywine Hundred seemed synonymous with the Republican Party and the DuPont Co. – but still a decided advantage.

Besides, special elections were a forte for the state Republicans. It was unthinkable they could drop this one.

The Republicans were feeling confident as they huddled at Bowers' house, next door to Smith's in Clair Manor. They knew they had turned out more of their voters than the Democrats had, and they figured it would translate into victory.

As the results came in, the Republicans grew hushed and jittery. "Not what we expected," someone said. Bowers was barely competitive or even behind in election districts that were heavily Republican, and he was getting crushed in Democratic areas. He lost by 226 votes.

A houseful of tearful Republicans applauded Bowers for his effort. They had out-hustled the Democrats, they had out-raised them in contributions, and all it did was make the defeat harder to take. "I'm shocked," Smith said.

Bowers told them, "This had been a heck of a ride. We had a plan, and we stuck to the plan. The fact is, we did all that we can do. We send good wishes to Bryon Short. I'm sorry it didn't work out."

U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, who campaigned with Bowers, said he did not see the defeat coming and believed it was probably beyond the Delaware Republicans' control. "I have to believe this was national overtones," he said.

The Democrats were giddy at the unlikely result as they gathered at the Claymont home of David D. Brady, a former state representative who lost his seat in 2002 when his district was combined with Smith's for redistricting.

They cheered Short as he jumped onto a fireplace hearth to address them. "This has been one of the most wonderful and amazing experiences I have had, and it would have been that way even if we had not prevailed," he said. "It's a wonderful family feeling. Thank you, thank you, thank you."

The Democrats' explanation for the election was not much different from what Castle thought. "The Republicans' analysis has been, we've got a 500-vote edge, and our response was, so what? We've got a great candidate, and nobody wants to be a Republican," said Mark T. Brainard, chief of staff for Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.

"The Democrats stayed with us, a great majority of the independents came with us, and a lot of the Republicans switched over," said state Rep. Robert F. Gilligan, the Democratic minority leader.

With this election in the books, the parties will be turning their attention south to Sussex County, where another special election for the state House is three weeks away. It will fill the seat vacated by John C. Atkins, a Republican who resigned in scandal. 

No matter what happens there, the Republicans cannot lose their House majority, but only barely. Before the dual resignations, they outnumbered the Democrats 23-18 in the 41-member chamber. With Short's victory, the House stands at 21 Republicans, 19 Democrats and one vacancy.

Bowers' loss is a crippling blow to a party already in a tailspin. The Republicans' holdings have dropped to two of the nine statewide offices, and they have lost seats for two elections in a row in the state House, the last Republican foothold in Legislative Hall, where the governor, lieutenant governor and state Senate belong to the Democratic Party.

Both sides poured energy, money and volunteers into the special election. While Castle campaigned with Bowers, there was an array of Democratic officeholders pitching in for Short -- including U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., Treasurer Jack A. Markell, Attorney General Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III and Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn. Hosts of legislators helped out both candidates, too.

As of late last week, Bowers’ campaign had collected $68,000 in contributions, with the candidate himself adding an extra $10,000 loan, and Short’s campaign took in $45,000. 

The two sides papered the district with campaign literature. 

In the early days, the brochures were positive. Bowers, a 48-year-old sales manager for Verizon, emphasized his roots in Brandywine Hundred, where he has lived almost all of his life. Short, a 41-year-old business owner who rehabilitates blighted properties in Wilmington, focused on his knowledge of constituent work from his days as a staffer for Carper when he was a congressman and governor. 

In the final days, however, the tone turned. A Democratic piece slammed Bowers for being in the pocket of Wayne Smith, now lobbying for the health care industry. Republicans responded by raising the specter of higher taxes and bloated government if Bowers was not elected as a counter to the Minner administration.

Taxes always have been the Republicans' ace-in-the-hole. So have special elections. So has Brandywine Hundred. This loss is as raw as it gets.