Posted: Sept. 5, 2014


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Politics is not linear. It can be like a shaggy dog story, impossible to say where it is going or how it will get there, except it can be counted on to meander strangely to existential pointlessness.

This may be happening to the Delaware Republicans with their 2014 ballot.

There is a widespread suspicion the party may have done itself in statewide because of what it has done in legislative races in and around Wilmington.

The Republicans may have jeopardized the re-election of Tom Wagner, the auditor who is their highest-ranking officeholder, and also cost the party the open race for treasurer with the grand result of shutting themselves out of all nine statewide offices. Not that they meant to.

Over the last three weeks, the Republicans found candidates to run against four Democratic legislators. Although the filing deadline was July 8, the party was allowed by law to fill vacancies on its ballot until Tuesday.

Candidates were filed against Margaret Rose Henry, the Democratic majority whip in the state Senate, and against Stephanie Bolden, Helene Keeley and James "JJ" Johnson, all Democratic members of the state House of Representatives.

What almost all of the Republican candidates and the Democratic legislators have in common is they are African-American, all but Keeley, who is white but represents a district with a constituency that is half black and a quarter Hispanic.

It was very deliberate on the part of the Republicans. As part of a strategy to reverse their decline here, they decided to make an appeal to African-American voters.

"We are committed to reaching out to the African-American community and delivering our message, and we're starting now," said John Fluharty, the Republicans' executive director.

The Republicans argued in a radio spot last month the African-American community is being victimized by the Democrats in a one-party system that has led to "rocketing crime rates, lagging schools and an economy that just isn't working."

Never mind the Republicans are competing against the party that elected and re-elected the first black president. There is that.

Two of the candidates the Republicans found were even Republicans and not on-the-spot converts.

Robert Martin, who is running against Henry, and Gregory Coverdale, who is challenging Johnson, appear on state election records as Republicans of standing, but Richard Dyton, who is Bolden's opponent, went from independent in 1998 to Democrat in 2008 to Republican for this candidacy.

Robert Bovell, who is taking on Keeley, has a history as a serial candidate and party jumper, running variously for mayor and state representative with the Republican Party, the Democratic Party and the Working Families Party, a labor-backed creation.

The crux of all of this is the Democratic legislators are being energized to campaign and get out their vote in districts that are right up there with the most lopsidedly Democratic registration in the state, ranging from 71 percent Democratic for Johnson to 75 percent Democratic for Henry.

Generally the Republicans have treated these districts as though they do not even exist and rarely fielded candidates because, really, why bother? Now that they have engaged, however, it could lead to unintended consequences of the most infamous kind.

The last thing the Republicans need in a little state where there are 125,000 more Democratic than Republican voters is incentive for Democrats to come out to vote.

A higher Democratic turnout could matter in the auditor's race, which the Republicans barely won the last time with Wagner just clearing 50 percent of the vote, and in the treasurer's race, which the Republicans barely lost to Chip Flowers, now vanishing after the lone term he won with 51 percent.

Wagner will be running for re-election against the winner of the Democratic primary between Brenda Mayrack and Ken Matlusky, and Sean Barney will be running as the Democratic candidate for treasurer against the winner of the Republican primary between Ken Simpler and Sher Valenzuela.

The Republicans might have been better off letting sleeping Democrats lie.  

As one Republican operative said in disbelief, "You're practically guaranteeing that you're taking Tommy Wagner and whoever wins the treasurer's primary out in a coffin."

Funny, Keeley put it just about the same way. "I really think they put the nail in Tom Wagner's coffin," she said.

Johnson was a little coy, but the meaning was unchanged. "I look forward to the Republicans seriously reaching out to the minority community," he said. "I will be campaigning to get out the Democratic vote to support the whole ticket. The Republicans have to decide for themselves what that means."

Wagner for his part was sounding like a good soldier. Live by the party, die by the party.

"You take it as it comes," Wagner said. "The party is going to be inclusive. Our party has to prove we're trying to do that."

This is not the first time the Republican Party has tried to reach out to African-American voters, and nobody knows it better than Henry. She was the recruit.

It was 20 years ago, in 1994, and there was to be a special election after the death of Herman Holloway Sr., a Democratic state senator who was an iconic figure among black Delawareans.

The Republicans invited Henry to run on their ticket, even though she was a Democrat, and she won. It cut the Democrats' margin in the Senate to two seats and had jubilant Republicans dreaming about taking over the majority and perhaps installing Henry as the mayor someday.

As political highs often go, this one for the Republicans did not last long. Henry changed her registration to Republican, but she was increasingly uncomfortable with the conservative turn the national party was taking. By late 1995, she had enough.

"I couldn't stay when I met Newt Gingrich, and I ran back to the other side," Henry said.

That was that. Henry went from the talk of the Republicans to the curse of the Republicans and now a foil for the Republicans in a constellation of races that could be pointless for them but cost them every statewide office they have or could have. Shaggy dog politics.