Posted: May 1, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Politicians come and go, party leaders are here and gone, but there is one constant for the Delaware Republicans.

They always have the du Ponts, whether it is Colonel Henry du Pont running for the U.S. Senate in 1895 or Charlie Copeland stepping forward for lieutenant governor in 2008.

Until last week, the Republicans were directionless and listless as they prepared for their state convention this Friday and Saturday at Dewey Beach. Their choices for governor were abject, the ones for lieutenant governor were obscure, and their state chair was mainly intent on dumping his post by persuading the party to elect him instead to the Republican National Committee.

The Republicans were so low, they were essentially ignored. The Democrats had robust primaries that were all but regarded as the election itself -- with Lt. Gov. John Carney and Treasurer Jack Markell for governor and Insurance Commissioner Matt Denn and Wilmington Council President Ted Blunt for lieutenant governor.

Then Copeland, the state Senate minority leader, filed for lieutenant governor. It provided purpose and focus for a movement to get a candidate for governor by drafting Bill Lee, the ex-judge who gave Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner a scare as the Republicans' 2004 nominee. A gubernatorial ticket was in the making.

Bill Lee! In his last campaign he predicted the state was in danger of backsliding. His party hardly can wait to hear him in this one after what has come to pass with the budget, the prisons, the psychiatric hospital, the Transportation Trust Fund, the Indian River bridge and the cancer statistics.

"Bill's tagline in the upcoming election, should he choose to run, should be, 'I told you so,'" quipped state Rep. Greg Lavelle, a Brandywine Hundred Republican.

"We will tell the voters how we can run the state better and how we do not want to become New Jersey -- a one-party state that is corrupt and makes excuses instead of finding solutions."

While the draft for Lee builds, he is vacationing at Disney World with his family, his cell phone banned, not to return home until after the state convention. By that time, he may not recognize the party. Its makeover appears to be spilling beyond a Lee-Copeland ticket.

When the party gathers this weekend, it will elect a national committeeman and committeewoman for four-year terms to the Republican National Committee, the party's governing council. National Committeewoman Priscilla Rakestraw is running for re-election. National Committeeman John Matlusky is not.

Terry Strine wants to shuck his role mid-term as state chair for the prestigious national post. The party seemed resigned to it, despite dissatisfaction with his leadership since 2003. In the 2004 and 2006 elections, the Republicans nearly were marginalized, their holdings down to two of the nine statewide offices and their majority in the state House of Representatives in jeopardy in 2008.

It was viewed as kicking Strine upstairs to get a new chair -- most likely Tom Ross, the Wilmington Republican chair who was instrumental in pushing for Lee for governor, to assume the duration of Strine's term until the next Republican state convention in 2009.

Instead, Strine will be challenged. His opponent is Laird Stabler III, a lawyer/lobbyist whose late father was the national committeeman from 1984 to 2004. Guess what? Stabler is a du Pont.

"Obviously part of it is my desire to continue in my family's tradition of service and active participation in the Republican Party, but there are just some concerns about the perception of the state of the party," Stabler said Thursday morning, shortly after informing Strine of his candidacy.

"I think it's a perception that needs to be turned around -- and turned around quickly -- or we are in danger of being a one-party state. If you've got two parties, it opens up the dialogue for meaningful conversation and compromise," he continued.

"Charlie Copeland's decision had some significance. It added some of the energy and excitement that we need. I just wanted to be a part of it."

There are still internal barriers to overcome before the Republicans right themselves. Bill Lee is not committed to accepting a draft, although the party would be shocked if he did not. There is also the biennial distraction of Mike Protack pestering the party for higher office, this time in Lee's way for governor.

As rejuvenating as the changes could be, they may not be enough. The Democrats have become the default candidates. They have a 14-point registration edge -- the electorate is 45 percent Democrat, 31 percent Republican and 24 percent others -- and George Bush, the Republican president who has never carried Delaware, is not exactly an asset here.

At the same time, the Minner administration is a drag on the Democrats, and that party is stalemated by its primaries for governor and lieutenant governor. It means an opening could exist for the Republicans.

"I think we have a good ticket. We've got a guy who's done it before, and then we've got Charlie. He's got all the issues. It's doable. It depends on the Republicans really putting out something that people can focus on," said Pete du Pont, the Republican governor from 1977 to 1985.

Du Pont has seen the party come back before. He ousted a Democratic incumbent when Delaware was hurting, and his governorship led to glory days for the Republicans in the 1980s.

Now du Pont is part of handful of Republican insiders, alarmed by the party's tailspin, behind the new direction, although he downplayed his participation. "I went to a couple of breakfasts. The idea was to scope out who we could get to run," he said.

The Republican chemistry is altogether different. As any Delawarean knows, there is always better living through chemistry.