Posted: May 2, 2011


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Republican convention turned out to be sort of like a Libertarian convention. Lots of party business. Nothing in the way of serious statewide candidates to talk about.

The Republican Party has been so woozy, it did not even arrange for anyone to lead the "Star Spangled Banner." Heather Lehman, the 2009 Miss Delaware, saved the day by springing from the ranks to volunteer. She performed marvelously.

The Republicans should be so lucky with the top of their 2012 ticket.

Still, a party has to start a comeback somewhere, so it plowed ahead with the installation of new state officers when it met Friday evening and Saturday at Dover Downs.

The leadership elections were accomplished with a determined effort at consensus. It had to come as a relief for a party that was sundered by the 2010 Senate primary between Mike Castle and Christine O'Donnell at great political cost.

The new chair is John Sigler, a lawyer who brings organizational skills as a past president of the National Rifle Association, former Kent County Republican chair and retired Dover Police captain. He easily dispatched a challenge from Mike Protack, a perennial office seeker whose streak of losses is now up to eight. Sigler won 276-53.

The new vice chair is Greg Lavelle, a Brandywine Hundred Republican who is the minority leader in the state House of Representatives. He won 269-60 against Don Ayotte, a Sussex County Republican favored by Tea Partiers.

The Republicans have a steep climb ahead of them to get back to relevance. After crushing losses in 2010, they have been shut out of all but one of the nine statewide offices, everything but auditor, and marooned in the minority in the General Assembly.

What they could really use is someone magnetic for president or governor to draw the voters back, but so far there is no one. Donald Trump?

It was certainly on people's minds. Without any prompting George Parish, the Sussex County clerk of the peace, lamented, "Here's the question. Who's going to run for governor?"

The mood of a convention is typically festive and upbeat, but this one was subdued and seemed to be conducted under an uneasy flag of truce.

Both Castle and O'Donnell showed up Saturday morning and had nothing to do with each other, even though at one point they stood about fifteen paces apart in a foyer outside the convention hall. He greeted his well-wishers and she greeted hers, and never the twain did meet.

There were rumblings that a motion would be offered to censure three legislators -- Senate Minority Whip Liane Sorenson and Reps. Nick Manolakos and Mike Ramone -- for voting to legalize civil unions, but it never materialized.

The convention left the Republican organization in the control of the regulars, not the Tea Partiers, but the price for it was to move the political center of gravity downstate and to the right (which is sort of the same thing), while Delaware voters are mostly upstate and moderate.

In addition to Sigler and Lavelle, the delegates elected Kim Hoey Stevenson, whose family has deep roots in downstate conservative politics, as secretary and Beth Miller, a Dover tax attorney who ran for state representative, as treasurer, both without opposition.

Even though the Tea Partiers did not have the votes at the convention, they had a voice. There was, for example, a speech from Eric Bodenweiser, a Sussex County Republican who took on Joe Booth, a state senator, in a tense primary last year and held him to 51 percent of the vote.

Bodenweiser has been known to hand out business cards reading, "Christian conservative activist, liberals overthrown on demand."

While the shift rightward kept the peace within the ranks, it could complicate the party's outreach to the state's electorate at large. Delawareans already are voting with their feet, and they are not walking the Republicans' way.

In the last election, there were 110,000 more Democrats than Republicans registered to vote. In the months since, the gap has swelled to nearly 113,000.

As if that voter deficit was not enough of an obstacle, the Republicans can expect to be coping with an unfriendly redistricting from the Democrats in the legislature, not to mention Joe Biden prominently atop the Democratic ticket.

The best prospect for the Republicans could come from $5-a-gallon gas, perish the thought. But they still need candidates.