Posted: Sept. 12, 2015


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

In politics, as in real estate, there are three things that really matter.

In real estate, it is location, location, location. In politics, it is registration, registration, registration.

There was more confirmation of it Saturday in a special election, as the Democrats capitalized on a ridiculous advantage in voter registration to win comfortably and keep a seat on their side of the aisle in the Delaware House of Representatives.

The special election propelled David Bentz, the Democratic candidate, from a job as a legislative aide to a full-fledged legislator, as he defeated Eileen O'Shaughnessy-Coleman, the Republican candidate who is a volunteer advocate for special education, by a vote of 57 percent to 43 percent.

It kept the Democrats' edge intact over the Republicans in the House at 25-16 and preserved the Democrats' super-majority that means they can push tax bills through the chamber without any Republican votes.

The election, held in the 18th Representative District stretching from the outskirts of Newark southward to Bear, was not as easy as it looked for the Democrats and came with more relief than it should have.

For one thing, it was the Democrats' own fault there even was a special election for a seat they unexpectedly had to defend.

Mike Barbieri, who was the Democratic state representative there since 2008, caused it by walking out mid-term on his constituents, and he did it to take a $144,000-a-year state job with the Health & Human Service Department under Jack Markell, the Democrats' own governor.

If the Democrats had lost the special election, it would not have been the first time the voters punished the party of state representatives who left for their own ends.

Barbieri was spared the ignominy that befell Wayne Smith, a Republican majority leader, and Diana McWilliams, a Democratic state representative, both of whom quit to force a special election. The Republicans lost Smith's seat in 2007 and never got it back, and the Democrats lost McWilliams' in 2008, although they reclaimed it at the next election.

For another thing, it got even more dicey for the Democrats after the Dover Police brought charges of sex abuse involving a 16-year-old against a counselor at Crossroads of Delaware, the social service agency Barbieri ran before he left the legislature.

Something like that can stir up the voters, not to mention that strange things can happen, anyway, in a special election when turnout is notoriously dismal, as it was here with 10 percent of the voters going to the polls.

Never mind. The registration held.

The Republicans are so outnumbered in the district of 15,000 voters, they not only trail the Democrats, but the "others." The registration -- 57 percent Democrat, 19 percent Republican and 24 percent others -- gave the Democrats roughly a 3-1 edge over the Republicans.

"The registration advantage helped us, but we targeted independents, as well, and had a real grassroots effort," said Erik Raser-Schramm, who managed Bentz's campaign.

"You never know what's going to happen in a special election, which is why we identified over 1,000 voters. Close to half of them came out."

To the Republicans' credit, they did not roll over and play dead, despite the odds against them. They recruited a solid candidate and did better than their registration would have suggested.

Even if the Republicans had pulled off a political miracle, it was all but inevitable it would have been fleeting. The Democrats would have been positioned to take the seat back in 2016, a presidential election year when they can typically count on their voters to turn out.

The district was the Democrats' to lose, and they did not. This was one special election that turned out to be barely a blip.