Posted: June 3, 2011


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Democrats have a vice president. The Delaware Republicans have a state auditor.

The Democrats control the whole General Assembly, both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Republicans needed an upset in a special election just to get themselves the president of the New Castle County Council.

It is the best of times for the Democrats. It is the worst of times for the Republicans.

Still, a strange murmuring is filtering through the state's political class. It is the startling, word-of-mouth realization that the Republicans have a chance to pull off something they have not accomplished in almost 40 years. For ultimate irony, it has long been considered the last thing they could ever do.

Win the state Senate.

"It's a lot closer than it looks on paper, and we're going to make a serious run this election. There are going to be some highly contested races, and I think we have a good chance to take the Senate," said Gary Simpson, the Senate's Republican minority leader.

Up until now, if Simpson had said something like that, he probably would have been sent for a rabies test. Simpson is not alone in saying it, however, and there are even Democrats saying it, too. Just not out loud.

It seems so preposterous. The 21-member chamber currently has 14 Democrats and seven Republicans, not to mention that the 2012 election will make it 40 years since the Republicans last carried the Senate.

Back in 1972, the Republicans came out of the election with 11 seats, but it was a short-lived majority. On the first day of the legislative session, two Republicans switched allegiance to give control to the Democrats. It was one of the most treacherous acts ever in Delaware politics, but it stood, and the Democrats have been in charge since.

Forty years! Forty years ago, Joe Biden was on the New Castle County Council. Forty years ago, the finishing touches were still to come on the World Trade Center in New York City. Forty years ago, the Supreme Court had not ruled on abortion rights. Forty years ago, Delaware did not have a national park. All right, so some stuff simply does not change.

There could not be a more unlikely time to talk about a Republican takeover. This is redistricting.

Legislative districts get redrawn every 10 years to even out the population. There is no greater opportunity for the Democrats, who are in charge of the mapmaking, to protect their majority. Think of it as legalized vote rigging.

Still, the Republicans have a chance at the majority, even though they would actually start with a base of six senators. This is because the Democrats' redistricting proposal has Liane Sorenson, the minority whip, tossed in with Dave Sokola, a Democratic senator, in a Hockessin-Pike Creek Valley district.

Sorenson's collapsed district is to be recomposed in Sussex County. Although the new district's registration would be slightly more Democratic than Republican, that is essentially irrelevant. Sussex County votes conservative. If it had been up to Sussex County, Christine O'Donnell would be a U.S. senator.

"You cannot draw a district in lower Kent County or Sussex County that we will not at least be competitive," said Colin Bonini, a Republican senator from one of those districts in Kent County.

To build a majority, the Republicans could target Sussex County. They could win the new Sussex district. They could bring to their column two other Sussex districts currently held by Bob Venables and George Bunting, a pair of Democrats who have been in the legislature since the 1980s, either through retirement or defeat.

The Republicans also could go after Michael Katz, a first-term Democrat from Centerville. In a gift to the Republicans, the Democrats' map not only puts him in a sprawling district in northern New Castle County with more Republican than Democratic voters, it also includes four veteran Republican representatives who are being squeezed into two districts by the House redistricting.

Katz could be challenged by any of the Republican representatives, although the likeliest is considered to be Greg Lavelle, the House minority leader. Funny the way this is happening after Katz failed in a coup against Tony DeLuca, the Senate's Democratic president pro tem.

The Republicans would still need one more seat to get to the magic number of 11.

It could happen if Sorenson managed to stay in the Senate, or if the Republicans managed to capitalize on the criticism against DeLuca for double dipping and infamously ordering a $50,000 doorway to his Senate office. DeLuca's proposed district, however, is a tidy little territory south of Newark with lots of Democrats living in it.

Not to mention the Republicans probably would have to come to the rescue of Dori Connor in her new district. The shape is so contorted that Paul Baumbach, the executive director of the Progressive Democrats for Delaware, objected to it during a public hearing Thursday on the Senate's redistricting plan.

No fooling. A progressive Democrat calling out the Senate's Democratic majority over a mutant district drawn for a Republican.

Connor's current district is a sort of wedge angling southwest from New Castle toward Bear and Glasgow. Her new district would be roughly V-shaped. It drops down along the Delaware River from New Castle to Delaware City and then shoots up through Glasgow all the way to the University of Delaware football stadium in Newark.

"The proposed [district] is a cluster screw-up. It's V-shaped. It's a travesty and should be criminal," Baumbach told the Senate. "You're destroying communities with this map. You should be ashamed of yourselves."

A lot would have to break the Republicans' way for them to get their majority. Maybe too much or at least too much all at once.

Heaven only knows, but 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, political or otherwise, was once supposed to be enough.