Posted: April 6, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The candidate's name was misspelled in the return address on the invitations, but about 60 people still came.

The candidate's identity seemed like an afterthought, anyway, among the star power of the hosts for his fund raiser -- Democrats like U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., Treasurer Jack A. Markell and Attorney General Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III.

The event, held Wednesday evening at the Residences at Rodney Square in Wilmington, was for Bryon H. Short -- or "Bryan" Short, as the return address had it -- who is the Democrat running in the legislative special election on Saturday, April 14, in Brandywine Hundred.

The spelling glitch was a sign of the haste with which the campaigns are being thrown together in the race to replace Wayne A. Smith, a Republican who was the majority leader in the state House of Representatives until he unexpectedly resigned last month to run a health care trade association.

At the exact same time that the Democrats were holding their fund raiser for Short, the Republicans were having one for James T. Bowers, their candidate, within the confines of the home 7th Representative District at Harry's Savoy on Naamans Road.

The Republicans' effort had the mark of a hurry-up job, too. Bowers' campaign literature featured his photogenic family in the best picture they had available -- one showing Jim, his wife Becky and their four children all with red admission tags draped around their necks for a visit to the White House, glimpsed over Jim Bowers' shoulder in the background.

This is one Republican candidate who will not be able to run away from the president, even if John F. Kerry did outpoll George W. Bush in the district in 2004 by about 1,000 votes.

There is nothing quite like the seat-of-the-pants ride when a vacancy arises and the compressed election schedule turns campaigns into the equivalent of M*A*S*H units. It is meatball politics.

There was good reason, for example, why the fund raisers coincided. Both sides were rushing to beat the deadline Friday for compiling campaign finance reports, which are expected to be made public Monday. Not only is the money needed, but the war chests will be regarded as an indication of political strength. No one wants to look weak, because there is no time to recover.

The Republicans were planning to spend at least $60,000 on the race. Admission to Bowers' fund raiser, attended by about 100 people, cost $75. The Democrats were budgeting about $40,000 for the campaign and sold tickets to Short's event at $150 each. Both candidates were more than willing to accept anything up to the maximum contribution limit of $600.

The Republicans have the advantage going into the election. Wayne Smith won nine elections in a row, and they have a 500-vote registration edge over the Democrats.

The Republicans hardly can take this one for granted, however. While Brandywine Hundred used to be bedrock Republican territory, particularly during the heyday of the DuPont Co. with so many of its workers living there, the Democrats have made inroads -- as shown by the district's vote for Kerry and Gov. Ruth Ann Minner in the 2004 election.

At the Republican fund raiser, Smith offered an analysis. "It's Jim Bowers' to lose. He's a quality candidate who has spent his life in the district," Smith said. "He's working hard. He's got an opponent who's working hard. It's obviously going to come down to turnout."

At the Democratic fund raiser, Carper's assessment was not too different. "It's a dogfight. It's like a lot of elections -- identify the people who will vote for you and get them out to vote."

Both candidates are emphasizing what they could do for constituent service, which was regarded as one of Smith's strong points.

Bowers, 48, a Verizon sales manager who lives in Clair Manor next door to Smith, has filled his campaign brochure with examples of his community involvement, such as coaching soccer, creating a local park, recruiting for Notre Dame, his alma mater, and volunteering at his church. He calls himself "a new voice for Brandywine Hundred."

Short, who lives in Highland Woods with his wife Kristin and two daughters, is the 41-year-old owner of a business that rehabilitates blighted properties in Wilmington neighborhoods. His campaign literature highlights what he did as a caseworker for Carper when he was a congressman and governor.

Carper carried the district by 1,000 votes last year, even running against Republican Jan C. Ting, who lives in a neighboring Brandywine Hundred district, so it is no wonder that Short is capitalizing on his ties.

Short is doing it so much that Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn took note of it while introducing Carper, who is nursing a broken foot, at Short's fund raiser. "Bryon asked me to take a baseball bat to his right foot," Denn quipped.

The Republicans need a victory more than the Democrats do. The Republicans need it to keep a district that traditionally has been theirs and to give them a lift going into another special election, replacing a Republican legislator three weeks later in Sussex County, to preserve what was a state House majority of 23-18.

Winning special elections long has been a point of pride for the Republicans. Some of them have been highlights of the state's political lore.

There was the one that flipped the state House to Republican control in 1979 and gave Gov. Pierre S. du Pont his first friendly legislative chamber. There was another one in 1994 when the Republicans recruited Democrat Margaret Rose Henry in Wilmington to win a state Senate seat they never should have, even if she did convert back to the Democrats later.

If the Republicans stop winning special elections, it would be a death blow. A win in Brandywine Hundred would restore their confidence and perhaps serve as a firewall to stop a streak that has given the Democrats two-thirds of the congressional delegation, two governors in a row and two Bidens in statewide office.

It would go toward soothing the Republicans' glum showing in the 2006 election, when they lost the attorney general's race to Beau Biden and dropped three House seats and control of the Kent County Levy Court. They could put the last year behind them.

"If we win on April 14," Smith said, "it'll finally be New Year's Eve for the Republican Party."