Posted: Aug. 3, 2009


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Republicans owned one of the most miserable streaks in Delaware politics. In their endeavors to flip state Senate seats from Democrat to Republican, whether it was a general election or special election, they went 0-for-11 years.

Not anymore.

The frustration and futility broke decisively and dramatically Monday in the special election to replace the late Thurman Adams, the Bridgeville Democrat who reigned as the Senate president pro tem and the unofficial kingpin of Sussex County.

The streak was banished to history as Joe Booth, the Republican representative from Georgetown since 2002, took a seat from the Democrats by beating Polly Adams Mervine, the senator's daughter from Bridgeville, and two minor-party candidates in a blowout.

"It was a pretty good victory," Booth said in his typical understated fashion, never mind that he had more than 100 euphoric Republicans cheering for him at the Sussex County Association of Realtors Building in Georgetown.

"Each day we got faster and stronger. I don't know if I got any leaner," he quipped about a campaign that set out to show that his legislative experience had depth equal to his personal breadth.

It was a day to upend convention. When a legislator dies, the most likely candidate to assume the seat is a family member benefiting from name recognition and a sympathy vote -- as the four widows and one son already in the General Assembly can testify.

Not this time. A messy split within the Democratic ranks soured Mervine's nomination and foreshadowed her doomed candidacy.

Mervine issued a concession statement. "I just called Joe Booth to concede the 19th District Senate race. I'm proud of the campaign we were able to put together in just three weeks. Even though we came up short, it wasn't for a lack of effort," she said.

"Obviously we're disappointed with the result, but we want to wish Sen. Booth all the best as he prepares to take on the challenges that await him and our state. He was a gentleman throughout, and we thank him for that."

Politically there was little at stake beyond bragging rights. The Democrats remain in firm control of the 21-member Senate, where they have been in the majority since 1973. Their margin over the Republicans drops to 15-6.

The Republicans will take the bragging rights, however. The last time they flipped a Democratic seat their way, it was 1998. They elected Gary Simpson, a Milford Republican who is now the minority leader.

"One seat at a time," Simpson cracked.

Booth won 2-1, even carrying Bridgeville, which was Mervine's home base and the heart of the district that sprawls through western Sussex County to take in Greenwood, Ellendale, Milton and Georgetown, as well.

"Sen. Booth did not lose a polling place," crowed Bruce Rogers, a former Sussex County Republican chair who was the campaign manager.

Election returns had Booth with 63 percent, Mervine with 30 percent, and the others with 7 percent out of 6,894 votes cast. There were 25,994 people eligible to vote.

It was the Democrats' race to lose. They had the candidate with the right name in a district her father held since 1972 and re-configured to his own liking every 10 years through redistricting.

"Joe is a man of the district. He looks like the district, he talks like the district, and he's got a history with the district. They had heard of Joe Booth," said Priscilla Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman.

The Republicans' price for winning the special election is they get to do it again. Next they have to try to keep Booth's seat in the 41-member House of Representatives, which the Democrats now control 24-16 with one vacancy.

It is double punishment for the Democrats. They not only lost the special election, but the rest of the summer.