Posted: July 17, 2009


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Here is what is at stake in the special election in Sussex County. The 21-member state Senate will have either five Republicans or six. The voters will elect either a conservative or a conservative.

There has not been this kind of excitement since the citizenry was asked to choose "Young Elvis" or "Old Elvis" for a stamp.

At least the stamp vote decided something. "Young Elvis" was printed in 1993, going on to glory as the most popular U.S. stamp ever, and "Old Elvis" was rejected -- returned to sender, so to speak. Here the Democratic and the Republican candidates both could wind up in the legislature.

As usual, there is nothing quite as odd as a special election.

This one is bearing down fast. It is just more than two weeks away on Monday, Aug. 3 -- if the voters can remember to vote on a Monday -- to replace the late Thurman Adams, the Bridgeville Democrat who represented the 19th Senatorial District in western Sussex County for 36 years.

The Democrats messily nominated Polly Adams Mervine, the daughter, on their second try. The Republicans have Joe Booth, a four-term state representative who did not have to resign to run.

If Mervine wins, Booth will still be going to Dover, even if they are unlikely to be carpooling.

If Booth wins, the biggest loss is not necessarily for Mervine, who could return to life as she knew it, but for all the politicians and operatives who would have to give up the rest of their summer for another special election to replace Booth. Hamsters on treadmills have a better lot.

The special election seems like an even paler version of the pale slogan for baseball's All-Star spectacle, a mid-summer exhibition game that manfully asserts, "This Time It Counts." This time it hardly counts.

The baseball score sets the home field advantage for the World Series. The home field advantage in the 19th Senatorial District was decided long ago.

Thurman Adams did it when he drew the district to suit himself.

Legislative districts are reworked every 10 years after the national census to adjust for population shifts. It is the most viciously political process there is. Incumbents do everything they can to protect themselves. Adams was not just an incumbent in the redistricting after the 2000 census, but a member of the Democratic majority's leadership.

The district is nominally Democratic, but the political registration is almost beside the point. Democrat or Republican, the Sussex County voters are overwhelmingly conservative. They proved they do not care about party labels when Rep. John Atkins got himself elected first as a Republican and then as a Democrat, sandwiched around an escapade that forced him out.

Adams packed the district with his neighbors. With nearly 26,000 voters, almost half of them live in Bridgeville and its surroundings, which was his home base. Another couple thousand vote in Milton, where he also was strong.

It is only against the law to stuff the ballot box on Election Day. It is regarded as smart politics to stuff it beforehand.

The district's configuration ought to favor Mervine, who lives in Bridgeville. Booth comes from Georgetown. His current representative district accounts for only about 20 percent of the voters in the expansive senatorial district.

With 80 percent of the voters new to Booth, he is banking on his reputation as a legislator to persuade them. "My experience is really my strong point," he said. "We share the same local papers. I think I'm fairly well-known in Sussex County."

There is really no telling how the voting will go. Turnout is typically so low in special elections that they can ride on practically anything -- familiarity, experience, a sympathy vote, and perhaps in this case, trouble in the ranks.

For Mervine and the Democrats, there was bloodletting over the nomination, which went first to Eddy Parker, only to have legislators big-foot the selection in memory of their departed colleague. Even in the do-over, Mervine barely squeaked through. It was not a promising start for her candidacy.

For Booth and the Republicans, there is a bothersome minor-party candidate, of all things. The Independent Party of Delaware and the Libertarians both are on the ballot, and Matt Opaliski, a Republican running on the Independent Party, is not to be dismissed the way minor-party candidacies typically can be. He polled 22 percent of the vote against Adams in 2006.

The election probably means more to the Republicans than the Democrats. It would be business-as-usual if the Democrats send another Adams to the Senate, but it would be a lift for the Republicans if they win, much beyond the petty arithmetic of having six senators instead of five.

The Republicans took a shellacking in 2008. It could only help if they steal away a seat that belonged to Adams since 1972, not to mention it would be their second consecutive victory in a special election for the legislature. They flipped a Brandywine Hundred representative district to the Republican side in December.

"There certainly is party building when you win a race that no one expects you to win," said Priscilla Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman. "It's been a long time since there was a spirited contest in that Senate district, and this time the voters will have a voice."

Politics is personal in Sussex County. There is no better example of what a dilemma it can be than Ben Ewing, a Bridgeville Republican who spent 21 years as a state representative after a career in the state police.

"Joe Booth is an attractive candidate. No matter who gets the position, Delaware will be served. But I've been friends with Thurman for over 50 years. We've vacationed together, and we've laughed and prayed and cried together. Without Thurman, I wouldn't have been the lieutenant colonel of the state police," Ewing said.

"There's a Polly Adams Mervine sign in my yard."

The voters actually may not have the last word in this special election. Another round of redistricting is two years away. Even if Booth wins next month and then wins a full term in 2010, the Democratic majority-for-life could carve him out of the district. He lives closer to Republican Sen. Gary Simpson in Milford than to Bridgeville.

Not only does it hardly count this time, it might not even count for long.