Posted: July 20, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Ruth Ann Minner and William Swain Lee underperformed so badly in places where they should have been running up their vote tallies, it was almost as if both of them were trying to lose the 2004 election for governor.

Minner, a Democrat running her last race in a 30-year political career, survived to be re-elected to a second term, but not before a huge scare. She was held to 51 percent of the vote by Lee, a Republican ex-judge trying to fulfill a decades-long dream of winning the governorship.

Minner endangered her re-election by running more than 1,000 votes behind John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate who carried Delaware, in some of the state's most Democratic districts in Wilmington, south of the city, Elsmere and Bear. The areas were so Democratic that Minner still won there, although grudgingly.

Lee fell short of unseating a governor for the first time since 1976 by fading in Sussex County, of all places -- not only his home, but the only one of the three counties where the Republican Party turned out more of its voters than the Democratic Party did.

Lee still outpolled Minner in Sussex County, but by a much smaller margin than he was counting on. He trailed thousands of votes behind George W. Bush, the two-term Republican president who trounced Kerry there.

If nothing else, the governor's race shows that Delawareans still know how to split a ticket.

These observations emerge from a three-inch-thick computer printout known as the "Age Group and Party Report," now available from the state Election Department. The report tracks turnout by voters' age and party registration.

The report documents what both campaigns privately were worrying about in the rush toward Election Day on Nov. 2 -- slippage in their base.

"Our poll numbers showed us running ahead of Bush until two weeks before," Lee said.

"When you have to govern for four years, you have to make difficult decisions. The districts where she did not do as well as expected were diehard Democrats. Sometimes the extremes of the spectrum get mad at you," said Robert L. Byrd, a lobbyist who is a close political adviser to the governor.

Both sides believe they know what happened. The other side did it to them.

Minner apparently was hurt by her endorsement of House Bill 99, now House Bill 36, a gay anti-discrimination measure. It made her susceptible to the suspicion, often among conservative churchgoers, that she supported gay marriage. (Minner did tell a gay-voters forum that she favored same-sex civil unions.)

If those conservative churchgoers also happened to be African-American city voters, normally a reliable Democratic bloc, it took a toll on Minner's base.

"That did not play in the black churches," Lee said. "We got some real help in the city."

Lee saw his Sussex support drop in a final barrage of political advertising from Minner's campaign, which dredged up a 30-year-old Farmers Bank loan that went bad when Lee and his law partner invested in an Indian River development project that failed. It made Lee look like someone too cavalier to pay his bills, and it also brought up development, a hair-trigger issue in Sussex County these days.

When all the votes were counted, Minner beat Lee statewide by 18,572 votes, winning upstate in New Castle County, the state's most populous county that is voting increasingly Democratic, but losing to him downstate in Republican-trending Kent County and Sussex County.

Minner won 25 out of 41 representative districts. She had a near-sweep upstate, carrying even traditional Republican areas like Brandywine Hundred, Hockessin and Pike Creek Valley, except for one district in Chateau Country. From Middletown south, however, she won only two districts in Dover and Rehoboth Beach.

Amid that typical voting pattern, it is hard to believe the returns in places that Minner and Lee should have been able to count on.

Five of the districts where Minner was hurt were so Democratic that they were the only ones in the state that did not go for U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the Republican ex-governor who won a record seventh congressional term by stamping out a typical vote in the neighborhood of 70 percent.

Those five are home to state Reps. Dennis P. Williams, Hazel D. Plant and Helene M. Keeley, all Wilmington Democrats, and to Rep. James J. Johnson, a Democrat whose district runs from Wilmington to New Castle, and Rep. Melanie George Marshall, a Democrat from the Bear area.

If Minner simply had matched Kerry in those districts, she would have raised her statewide total from 185,687 votes to 191,786 votes, a shade more than she received in 2000 when she polled 191,695 votes and won with 59 percent.

Lee did the unthinkable by running neatly ahead of Bush upstate -- "The challenge up there was not to get too close to him," Lee said -- and then faltering downstate, particularly in Sussex County. Both Bush and Lee lost in New Castle County but won in Kent and Sussex.

Lee received 167,115 votes statewide, outrunning the president by 6,516 votes in New Castle County but trailing him by 3,016 votes in Kent County and 8,036 votes in Sussex County.

Even so, Lee would have had to perform dramatically better than Bush to overcome his deficit to Minner. Lee also could have used 12,206 votes siphoned away by a minor-party candidate, if he was to turn around an election that gave Minner 51 percent of the vote and Lee 46 percent.

Minner was cut by diehard Democrats. Lee was cut by rock-solid Republicans. They think they know why, and the reason is an old one. Negative campaigning still works.