Posted: Oct. 3, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Maybe the first signal came in the election last year, when contributions migrated from the family and real-estate business interests of Terry A. Strine, the Republican state chairman, to pro-growth Democrats running in Sussex County.

The signal got even clearer last month, when Republican Attorney General M. Jane Brady decided she wanted to bolt out of politics for a judgeship, an appointment she can get only with the sufferance of the Democratic governor and the Democratic majority in the state Senate.

The message that came through was a bitter one from a party that once owned Delaware. Republicans cannot accomplish something they want without relying on Democrats.

The Republican Party is experiencing a case of creeping irrelevance, and even its own officeholders are infected. When Donna Lee Williams announced she would not run for a fourth term as insurance commissioner in 2004, she did not bother telling Republican state headquarters first. Ditto for Brady, when she applied for the judgeship.

The Republicans are down to a scant holding of three of the nine statewide offices -- occupied by U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, state Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr. and Brady -- and the majority in the state House of Representatives.

"No new faces have really come on. They're just short on candidates," said James R. Soles, a political science professor emeritus from the University of Delaware.

The descent has come over 25 years, from a time when the Republicans were the state's indispensable party.

When the votes rolled in for the 1980 election, the Republicans had achieved a near-monopoly, controlling the governorship and the congressional delegation and leaving the Democrats clinging for dear life to U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and an obscure, although promising, state treasurer named Thomas R. Carper, as well as the majority in the state Senate.

Within the rhythm of politics, a drop from the heights was essentially inevitable. It began as an erosion but has come to resemble a collapse, sometimes because of forces beyond the Republicans' control but sometimes self-inflicted and sometimes a combination of both.

Tom Carper's rise makes the case. As the state treasurer in 1982, he got to the Congress by beating a Republican incumbent who was crippled politically by a sex scandal. Ten years later in 1992, Carper parlayed his high-profile position and voters' familiarity with him into the governorship, breaking the Republicans' 16-year lock on the office and also contributing to a profound change in state politics.

By the time Carper was ready to run for the U.S. Senate in 2000, the voters had grown comfortable with the Democrats. The statewide electorate generally likes its candidates fiscally responsible and socially progressive, a centrist blend that the Republicans had been offering them, but the Democrats spent the 1990s showing they could measure up.

Carper with his tax cuts and President Bill Clinton with his budget surplus had refashioned the party image in Delaware voters' minds, and the payoff came in the titanic showdown for the U.S. Senate in 2000. Carper rode his record as governor, his tireless style of campaigning and his party's ascending fortunes to depose the aging William V. Roth Jr., a five-term Republican incumbent who was the symbol of his party's past.

For the Republicans, losing Roth was like having a leg cut off a three-legged stool. It had been sturdy enough to keep them standing as long as they had Roth, Castle and the state House majority, but it has been precarious since.

Something else happened during the 1990s. The DuPont Co. retreated.

"The decline of the DuPont Co. has mirrored the decline of the Republican Party," Professor Soles said.

For decades, beginning with the rapid growth of the 1960s, the robust company and the family behind it gave the Republicans a deep pool of candidates, political operatives, volunteers, money, energy and votes, creating a party with a formidable base and centrist message.

In a happy marriage of business and politics, it churned out governors with Russell W. Peterson in 1968 and Pierre S. du Pont in 1976 and 1980, party leaders like National Committeeman W. Laird Stabler Jr., who was an in-law, and National Committeewoman Priscilla B. Rakestraw, along with a host of legislators, some of them legendary like George Jarvis, a House majority leader, and Richard Sincock, a Joint Finance Committee chair.

Roth was not a DuPonter, but something of a first cousin as a lawyer with Hercules before he went into politics. Neither was Castle, the governor after Pete du Pont, but his father was. (As a side note, that sort of gubernatorial streak stayed alive with Carper, whose wife Martha was an international executive, now retired.)

As the company retrenched, gutting its Delaware workforce from 25,000 people in 1990 to 8,000 people today and thinking more globally than locally, the Republican Party was left in a widowed state.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party had become an acceptable, if not preferred, alternative -- particularly as the national Republican Party turned into a conservative platform.

It was the state Democratic Party that became the vehicle for Jack A. Markell, the business-oriented state treasurer who made his fortune in the telecommunications industry, and for Christopher A. Coons, the New Castle County executive whose family business is W.L. Gore & Associates.

In politics, success often leads to more success, and it is no accident that four terms of Democratic governors spawned Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., who was the finance secretary in the Carper administration, and Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn, who was the legal counsel to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.

The Republicans may not have hit bottom yet. With Brady apparently ceding the field, the Democrats are confident they can install Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, their projected candidate, as attorney general in 2006 and are eager to take on Wagner, the auditor whose term is up next year. The Democrats also are focused on picking up state House seats, aiming for the majority with a rallying cry of "Six in '06," although it is likely too ambitious to accomplish.

For now, the Republicans are left hoping that the other party splinters over the building rivalry between Carney and Markell for the 2008 gubernatorial nomination, giving them an opening if they can find the candidates and the approach to reconnect with the voters. If.

"We've got to go back to being Delaware Republicans. We've got to get rid of the national stuff. You can't tell me it won't work, with California having a Republican governor and Massachusetts having a Republican governor. We've got to get back to being the party of fiscal responsibility, the party of good governance," said Thomas S. Ross, who stepped down earlier this year as the party's New Castle County co-chair.

"At this point in the Republican Party, you have more shakers than you have movers."