Posted: Sept. 15, 2009 


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Special elections for the Delaware General Assembly used to be really special. Special as in rare.

More recently, they have gone practically viral. There have been seven of them since the 2006 general election to create a sense of perpetual campaigning, not to mention exhaustion. In about a decade beforehand, from the end of 1997 to the beginning of 2007, there was only one.

The special elections appear to be over now, with lessons to be learned. Here is a chart of what happened and a reckoning of what it meant.

When Where Who left Party Why Winner Party Loser Party
April 2007 House Wayne Smith R left to lobby Bryon Short D Jim Bowers R
May 2007 House John Atkins R forced out Greg Hastings R Lynn Bullock D
Nov. 2007 Senate Jim Vaughn D resigned then died Bruce Ennis D Joanne Christian R
Dec. 2007 House Bruce Ennis D elected to Senate Bill Carson D Christine Malec R
Dec. 2008 House Diana McWilliams D moved out of state Tom Kovach R Mike Migliore D
Aug. 2009 Senate Thurman Adams D died Joe Booth R Polly Adams Mervine D
Sept. 2009 House Joe Booth R elected to Senate Ruth Briggs King R Rob Robinson D

1. Candidates who were elected before can get elected again.

For the state's voters, familiarity breeds contentment more often than not. The party that can trot out a trusty vote-getter has the advantage. It is no accident that two of the more lopsided victories went to Bruce Ennis and Joe Booth, each a state representative running for the Senate.

2. Voters do not like to be dumped at the altar.

Legislators who leave their districts in the lurch do the same to their parties. The voters will punish the party whose legislator forces a special election upon them. Republican Wayne Smith was replaced by a Democrat, and Democrat Diana McWilliams was replaced by a Republican.

John Atkins was a special case because of the way he left. He did not jump, he was pushed.

3. Bounce for success.

The party that wins a special election has the momentum going into a derivative campaign. The voters were so pleased with themselves for sending Ennis to the Senate, they elected another Democrat to fill his seat in the House of Representatives. Ditto for Joe Booth, a Republican replaced by a Republican.

4. If a party's local organization has withered, it is in trouble.

The Democrats were out of it in the three special elections in Sussex County. The same went for the Republicans for the two held in Kent County/lower New Castle County.

It made life easy for Booth, Greg Hastings and Ruth Briggs King in Sussex County and for Ennis and Bill Carson in Kent County/lower New Castle County.

5. All things being equal, the parties are, too.

Both parties know the drill. The special elections put in play four Democratic and three Republican seats. When the voting stopped in this flurry of political chairs, the Democrats had three seats and the Republicans had four for a shift of one seat.

6. Encore, encore -- not you, Greg Hastings.

The winners of special elections have a special place in political lore and in the hearts of their parties. They tend to last. Ask Nancy Cook, a Democratic state senator who won a special election in 1974 and stayed for the duration.

Not Hastings, though. Not only did he manage to lose as a Republican in Sussex County, he was the foil that allowed John Atkins to shake off a political triple-whammy. Atkins disgraced himself, he was driven out of the legislature, and he switched parties, any one of which is regarded as enough to kill a political career, but he beat Hastings in the next general election to return to Dover.

7. Please stop.

Special elections can be kind of a lark when they pop up every now and then. They are an adrenaline rush, a little side action.

Enough already. Life is more than a literature drop. The voters have had it with the robo-calls.

The one reprieve was Ted Kaufman, the Democrat who took Joe Biden's Senate seat by appointment. Otherwise, this madness would have gone statewide.