Posted: April 29, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Only a traffic light could have blinked more than the Delaware Republicans.

Their state convention, held Friday and Saturday in Rehoboth Beach, was a series of uneasy moments that were resolved only when someone blinked and decided to walk away from a showdown. Not that they offered to shake hands about it.

Color the whole convention flashing yellow and the party knuckle-clenching white. Maybe a little black and blue, too.

This is a party in search of itself. It is afraid of fighting and afraid not to. All it knows is it keeps getting thrashed by the Delaware Democrats, so it is thrashing around for the means to a comeback.

What could have been the most serious conflict was defused before the Republicans actually met when Priscilla Rakestraw, the national committeewoman since 1976, pre-emptively stepped aside and let the post go without a vote to Ellen Barrosse.

Rakestraw is one of the last of the moderates, and Barrosse is the founder of the pro-life A Rose and A Prayer. Rakestraw's exit was a concession to the movement conservatives, growing in power within the party, and also to a foursome showing designs on arising as a new generation of leadership by recruiting Barrosse.

Barrosse's primary backing came from Charlie Copeland, a past Senate minority leader, Greg Lavelle, the House minority leader, Colin Bonini, a state senator, and Michael Fleming, a former chair of the New Castle County Republicans.

Funny thing about appeasement. It is hardly ever a good strategy. With Rakestraw out of the way, there was talk as the Republicans made their way to the Rehoboth Beach Convention Center that her withdrawal could be the impetus to go after Laird Stabler, the national committeeman, another moderate also up for a new term.

An e-mail was sent anonymously to Republicans to knock Stabler, a lawyer who works as a lobbyist, for contributing to Democratic legislators, and it was followed by signs that a "Draft Copeland" movement was in the works.

The party braced for a rugged confrontation, but it never happened, and nobody is quite sure why.

Maybe it was the presence of Reince Priebus. The Republican national chair was there Friday for the national committee elections, and he took up for both Rakestraw and Stabler as ringingly as Barry Goldwater declaring that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.

"I want to brag on Priscilla Rakestraw for a second. Just because someone has been in office for a long time doesn't mean they're ineffective. Priscilla Rakestraw has been a leader on the Republican National Committee. Priscilla has been a great, great friend of mine," Priebus said.

"I want to also recognize Laird Stabler. Laird has personally helped us raise millions of dollars."

Maybe it was that Copeland simply did not have the votes, although he insisted he probably did.

Maybe it was the reluctance to open an unseemly rift of family versus family. This was, after all, putting not just any family but The Family at odds. Copeland and Stabler are both du Ponts. Their great-grandmothers were sisters, so it makes them, what, third cousins?

Whatever, there was no draft, Stabler was elected unopposed, and the room felt like the air was leaving a balloon.

"It's nice that people still think highly of me. Frankly, I think I would do a good job as national committeeman. I decided it made more sense not to add more angst," Copeland said in an interview after the convention.

So much for the Friday Night Fights. It was on to Saturday and more of the same.

The Republicans had a fuss they have not had for years and years, if ever. It was over the 17 delegates they are sending to the national nominating convention this summer in Tampa. Under the party's rules, the delegation is assembled by the executive committee and the five geographic regions and then ratified at the convention.

This was no routine ratification. One of the delegates was supposed to be Tom Ross, the past state chair who once said Christine O'Donnell could not get elected dogcatcher (let alone senator) and then riled up the Tea Party types in Sussex County by defiantly telling them the reason he said it was "because it was true."

Sussex County was not ratifying any delegation with Ross in it. Nor did it help that Mike Castle was on the list of delegates, too. O'Donnell, standing unacknowledged in the back of the hall, was not.

Sussex wanted different delegates. The list was put to a vote, up or down. Up won. The vote to ratify the delegation was 196-131. In an earlier day and age, Sussex might have staged a walkout, but it blinked and stayed put.

The guy who said Christine O'Donnell could not get elected dogcatcher showed he could get himself elected delegate.

By this time, there was little fight left in the convention for its main purpose, which was endorsing a statewide ticket against the Democrats' all-incumbent slate of Tom Carper for senator, John Carney for congressman, Jack Markell for governor, Matt Denn for lieutenant governor and possibly Karen Weldin Stewart, if she survives a primary, for insurance commissioner.

The Republicans went with Kevin Wade for senator, Tom Kovach for congressman, Jeff Cragg for governor, Sher Valenzuela for lieutenant governor and Ben Mobley for insurance commissioner. Kovach and Mobley had token opponents backed by about 20 percent of the convention.

Cragg, who is fast showing he has the political instincts for leadership, roused the Republicans by blasting the mischievous lyrics of "Hit the road, Jack, and don't you come back no more," and then reminded the party how it ought to be focused.

"The election is about the economy and jobs, and it's about party unity. The enemy is not inside this room," Cragg said.

Easy for him to say. By the time he said it, everybody had blinked.