Posted: Sept. 22, 2009
NORTH OF IRRELEVANCE
By Celia Cohen
Joe Booth took his oath Tuesday and instantly swelled the Republican caucus in the state Senate by 20 percent. People, not pounds. Pounds would be more, as Booth told the chamber in earnest disclosure. He is a big man.
The Republicans now account for six of the 21 senators. There have been bigger carpools.
Still, they were encouraged. Once they were puny. They have progressed to paltry. The Republicans have moved north of irrelevance.
Their votes will matter at least twice a year, when the Senate takes up two of the most important bills -- the bond bill for construction projects and the grants-in-aid bill. Both measures need a three-quarters supermajority for approval. That is 16 votes. The Democrats have 15.
The Senate installed Booth during a special session called for a series of votes on gubernatorial nominations, the most prominent being the unanimous confirmation of Travis Laster as a vice chancellor on the Court of Chancery.
Booth, a Georgetown Republican, joined the chamber after winning a special election in August for a Sussex County seat, vacant because of the death of Thurman Adams, a Bridgeville Democrat who was the Senate's president pro tem.
The Republicans were feeling festive as they greeted Booth with his yellow boutonniere for the occasion, already a Dover veteran with seven years as a state representative. Really, though, they were celebrating a blip.
They are mired in one of the longest losing streaks of political futility anywhere.
The Republicans have been in the Senate minority since 1973. 1973! They have made less of a comeback from those days than leisure suits.
They will take what they can get. "It makes a big difference. It's just one more. We'll take the next one when it comes along," said Sen. Gary Simpson, the Republican minority leader.
The Republicans would like to believe a revival is at hand. After all, look at what the Democrats did in the House of Representatives. They were down to 12 Democrats in the 41-member chamber after the 2002 election but climbed into the majority, 24-17, last year.
It was different, though. The registration favored the Democrats. Out of 41 House districts, there were 37 of them in which the Democrats out-registered the Republicans.
Of the 21 Senate districts, 20 of them leaned Democratic, and the lone Republican district just elected Michael Katz, a Democrat. This was in Chateau Country. Usually the only Democrats welcomed there are the ones bearing mops or garden shears.
As trends go, voter registration has not been good for the Republicans in the Senate, unlike the Democrats in the House.
"It was an uphill battle for the majority. I knew eventually we'd get there. I just didn't know whether I'd be around to see it," said Rep. Bob Gilligan, who was a shell-shocked minority leader in 2002 but a jaunty speaker of the House today.
The Republicans can dream about the Senate, right?
"I think so. We've proven we can win races in Democratic registration districts," said Tom Ross, the Republican state chair. "And look at Sussex and Kent. They're Republican-leaning territory."
Sussex County certainly is. Right now it has two Republican and two Democratic senators, but it is more conservative than a Bush family picnic. The Republicans just proved it again by winning with Booth and backfilling his House district with Ruth Briggs King. Sussex is an option.
Kent County, however, is not as Republican-happy as it was. The Republicans lost three legislative seats there in 2008, as the Democrats flipped an open Senate seat their way and ousted two Republican representatives. Three out of the four Kent County senators are Democrats.
"If I were the Republicans, I would have a six-year plan in place, the way we had for the House," said Sen. Patti Blevins, the Democratic majority leader. "This is a Democratic state. I think it's less likely the Republicans take the Senate. It's a one-seat-at-a-time game. I don't think anyone should get complacent, and we won't."
This is becoming biblical. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. The Senate Republicans should have it so good.