Posted: April 3, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Delaware voters are not just trending Democratic. They are stampeding.

The Democrats have picked up more than 16,000 new voters since the last election in 2006. The Republicans have stayed static, adding a negligible 180 names to their rolls.

The dynamics have left only five of the state's 41 state representative districts with more Republican than Democratic voters. Five! Two districts flipped in the last year alone.

For the Republicans here, "GOP" no longer seems to stand for Grand Old Party, but Gone to the Other Party. For the Democrats, it raises their hopes that where the voters go, the state House of Representatives will follow.

The House is the Republicans' last fortress in Legislative Hall, their lone base in Dover against a Democratic governor, lieutenant governor and state Senate, but their 22-19 majority clearly is in jeopardy on Election Day.

The shrinking pool of Republican districts was evident in the new registration figures posted April 1, the day after the deadline for Delawareans to change their party affiliation in advance of the primary election in September. New registrants can continue to sign up, but there will be no more party switching by existing voters before then.

Delaware has 574,001 registered voters -- 45 percent Democratic, 31 percent Republican and 24 percent others. The Democrats are up a percentage point and the Republicans are down one since the 2006 election, when the state had 557,736 registered voters.

It is only April. It still could get worse for the Republicans.

Any number of factors could be driving the voters the Democrats' way. The war? The price of gas? Home foreclosures? Dissatisfaction with the president? Clinton-Obama? Carney-Markell? New residents importing their political preferences from elsewhere?

"All of the above," quipped state Rep. Bob Gilligan, the Democratic minority leader, who would be in line to become the speaker if his party takes the House. "Hopefully this will be a good November."

Gilligan is the longest-suffering House Democrat, the only one there now ever to serve in the majority. He was elected in 1972 to the minority but saw his party roar into control with the Watergate Class of 1974. The Democrats went back into the minority in 1979, when one of their members died and the Republicans won a special election. Except for another brief fling with the majority in the 1982-1984 term, the Democrats have been out of power since.

A dozen dismal Election Nights have gone by for the House Democrats since 1982 without a victory party. They could be due.

The Delaware Republicans, like their counterparts in other mid-Atlantic states, have been faltering. From New York to Maryland, the Republicans have been shut out of the governorships and retain only one U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania.

The voting trends clearly are against the Delaware Republicans, but it is not helping their situation to have the voters fixated on the Democratic gubernatorial rivalry between Lt. Gov. John Carney and Treasurer Jack Markell while the Republicans have found nobody comparable to run.

It appears to have sparked a significant amount of party switching in the stretch of time between the presidential primary here on Feb. 5 and the deadline for changing on March 31. The final numbers are not available yet, but at the mid-point, there were roughly 4,000 voters who re-registered, 3,000 of them switching to the Democrats.

"The numbers are going up, and they are trending Democratic, heavily Democratic. I think it's driven by the primaries. I expect some people will turn back, but some will stay," said Elaine Manlove, the elections commissioner.

The only Republican House districts remaining are the one in Brandywine Hundred, although it is held by Democrat Bryon Short, who won it in a special election last year, and the ones held by Republicans Deborah Hudson in Greenville, Nick Manolakos in Hockessin, Joe Miro in Pike Creek Valley, and Gerald Hocker in Sussex County.

The Brandywine Hundred district represented by Republican Greg Lavelle flipped Democratic in the last year, while the Sussex County district of Republican Joe Booth fell into a virtual tie with four more Democrats than Republicans on the voter rolls.

Sussex County, though, is a special case, where party affiliation is a distinction without a difference. Any legislator elected there is a conservative.

The statewide registration being what it is, the Republicans know what they are up against. As of now, there could be perhaps a dozen districts that are seriously contested, with the Republicans on offense in only three of them -- against Short in Brandywine Hundred, first-term Democrat Bobby Walls in Kent County and a likely opening for Rep. Bethany Hall-Long's seat in Middletown if she runs for the Senate as expected.

"It tells me that we will have a tough battle. We've got a whale of an effort going on. We could end up after a hard fight with 21 or 22. The big question is, who retires, and we are not going to know that, probably until the sessions ends July 1," said Terry Strine, the Republican state chair.

Strine cannot be faulted for his optimism, but it does not look good.

"I think the House will go Democratic. The registration is astounding. It's partially driven by the gubernatorial primary, but also because people are upset, and some Republicans may go down because of that," said Jim Soles, a political science professor retired from the University of Delaware in Newark.

Soles himself is a Democrat, but it hardly matters in this instance. Not only is he respected as a neutral observer by profession, he has personal experience of the other side. Four years ago he watched Paul Pomeroy, his Republican son-in-law whom he enthusiastically supported, lose a hard-fought race in Newark for an open seat that had been held for years by a House Republican.

Pomeroy got the message. Shortly afterwards, he won a place for himself on the Newark City Council. That election was nonpartisan. It was an escape clause that does not exist for the House Republicans in Legislative Hall.