Posted: Sept. 12, 2009


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

As a rule, politicians know better than to count their votes before they are cast. The special election Saturday in Sussex County was a reminder there can be exceptions.

The Republican won, of course. It is what they do in Sussex County.

The rest of the state is decidedly a challenge for them, but not here. In recent years the Republican vote in Delaware's most conservative county has been only slightly less reliable than a stuffed ballot box.

Ruth Briggs King parlayed the Republicans' political advantage here to defeat Rob Robinson for state representative and secure a seat that had belonged to Joe Booth, a Republican who won a special election last month to move from the House of Representatives to the Senate.

King won comfortably, outpolling Robinson 54 percent to 46 percent out of 4,534 votes cast in the 37th Representative District, which stretches from Georgetown to Lewes. There were 13,870 eligible voters.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," King told about 200 Republicans celebrating at the Sussex County Association of Realtors Building in Georgetown after the returns were in. "I'm smiling from ear to ear."

The Democrats knew from the beginning what they were up against.

"We had a tough district," Robinson said as he conceded at the Brick Hotel in Georgetown, where about 50 Democrats gathered when the polls closed.

The outcome left the Democratic edge over the Republicans in the 41-member House at 24-17.

This was the second special election for state representative to go the Republicans' way since the 2008 election -- they won earlier in Brandywine Hundred -- and it gave the party the momentum it wanted for 2010.

The Republicans will be gunning to reclaim the House majority that was theirs for decades before they lost it last year. The House had been the lone bright spot for the Republicans in Legislative Hall, where the governor, the lieutenant governor and the Senate majority have been Democrats since the 1992 election.

"We're on a roll. It shows the people of Delaware want their government back, and 2010 is going to be a big Republican year," said Tom Ross, the Republican state chair.

The special election also secured the Republican domination of the House's Sussex delegation, which remains at six Republicans and two Democrats. King broke a gender lock to become the only woman among them.

The election showed what a structural advantage can mean in politics. The district was deftly shaped by the House Republicans, then in the majority, during redistricting before the 2002 election to benefit a Republican from Georgetown.

First Booth and then King were able to capitalize, coupling the district design with Sussex County's conservative leanings, which mattered more than the Democrats' nominal 200-vote registration edge over the Republicans. The district is 40 percent Democratic, 38 percent Republican and 22 percent others.

King, the executive vice president of the Sussex County Association of Realtors, carried six of the districts' eight polling places, losing the two in Lewes.

The Republicans also were able to ride Booth's popularity and the afterglow from his victory six weeks ago for the Senate, where he replaces Thurman Adams, the Democratic president pro tem who died in June.

"From Joe, the momentum, you just carried it through," King said.

The Democrats tried to hold their own by fielding Robinson, a public defender whose family has longstanding, bipartisan ties to Sussex County.

A great-grandfather was a Republican congressman, and a grandfather was a Democratic state House speaker. His father ran the local newspaper. His mother Battle Robinson, originally from North Carolina, is a retired Family Court judge who was the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 1984 before she went on the bench.

Special elections are crucibles because they crop up so unpredictably. The timing of this one caught three of the state's prominent political figures committed to being elsewhere as the votes were counted.

Gov. Jack Markell and Sen. Tom Carper, both Democrats, were at Longwood Gardens to attend a fund-raiser for the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition, for which Priscilla Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman, is the development director.

Rakestraw was the first to get word of the outcome and relay it to Markell and Carper.

"There were no people more anxious to hear the election results than three of the people at the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition," Rakestraw said.