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Curious Voting History Not Likely to Repeat Itself

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Delaware looks like it is heading for an Election Day full of sound and fury and signifying nothing unusual. This is not normal. Not because it is happening, but because of when it is happening. Every 20 years, in an election year ending in a “4,” Delaware has had itself a whale of a vote. Going backward in time, in the campaigns in modern politics since the end of World War II, it did in 1994, 1974 and 1954.

This is in contrast to 2014, which looks very much like it will break the pattern. It is an election that is expected to prolong the Democrats’ stranglehold on the state. Same old, same old. What the campaign seasons of ’94, ’74 and ’54 had in common is they were midterm elections, falling between presidential elections, when the party holding the White House typically loses. In these cases, the party in power got walloped. Really, really walloped, here in Delaware and across the country.

So never mind about 2014. Better to remember the anniversaries of those watershed elections. That would be the 20th anniversary of the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, the 40th anniversary of the Watergate Class of 1974, and the 60th anniversary of the election of 1954, which was just too searing to be preserved by a capital-letter name. It was the upheaval of school integration. So if somebody will yell “Four!” here is a look back.

The Gingrich Revolution of 1994

Newt Gingrich loved zoos and history. He got something of both in the 1994 election. Gingrich was the minority whip, the second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, with a grand design to be the political Moses who would lead his party out of the wilderness to the majority for the first time in 40 years and make himself the speaker. The campaign season was a loud and unruly zoo of a history-making election, and Delaware played a part in it. For Gingrich, the election was made to order. Bill Clinton, the new Democratic president, was unpopular enough to be a drag on his party, and Gingrich captured the political high ground with the “Contract with America,” a new twist on the trusty old campaign pledge, offering conservative principles and congressional reform. Delaware was in the thick of the action with Bill Roth, the Republican senator, and Mike Castle, the Republican congressman and ex-governor, each up for a new term.

The national campaign unfolded in unforgettable fashion. The Republicans flipped 60 seats to take over the Senate and the House, with Roth and Castle rolling into the majority with their party. As history would have it, the Democrats’ last stand was right here in Delaware. Roth’s opponent was Charlie Oberly, then a three-term Democratic attorney general (and now the U.S. attorney). As darkness fell on the eve of the election, Oberly’s campaign staged a final rally in Rodney Square, and Bill and Hillary Clinton were there. It was the finish of their frantic and futile national tour to save the Democrats. Amid 4,000 people cheering and fireworks cascading and rock music blasting, the evening ended as Oberly and Hillary Clinton boogied together like there was no tomorrow. Fitting, because, for the Democrats, there was none.

The Watergate Class of 1974

Richard Nixon was gone. He had resigned the presidency in disgrace four months before the election. If the voters did not have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore, they still had his party, and they were bent on punishing the Republicans in his place. All around the country, congressional Republicans lost in droves. Not here, though. Pete du Pont, the Republican congressman, won a third term to the state’s lone House seat and set himself up to be elected governor two years later. Although he was nervous about the race, it turned out he was immune from the Republicans’ national bloodbath. This was Delaware, and he was a du Pont.

The Democratic candidate was Jim Soles, a political scientist at the University of Delaware. It was just as well that he lost. Ever the professor, Soles made a most indelible mark on the state by inspiring a new generation to enter public life. This included Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, and Tom Carper, the Democratic senator and ex-governor, as well as judges, Cabinet secretaries and legislators. “I ran against a du Pont in Delaware,” Soles reflected in an interview about a quarter-century after Watergate. “Our poll showed that people had more confidence in the DuPont Co. than they had in their church.”

The Upheaval of 1954

Six months before the election, the U.S. Supreme Court decided one of its most famous cases. It was Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing school segregation. Once again, Delaware was vitally involved. The case was actually a consolidation of five from around the country, including one from here. The Delaware case was filed by Louis Redding, the famed civil-rights lawyer, and heard by Collins Seitz, arguably the greatest judge in state history. The other cases upheld the doctrine of separate-but-equal education, but Seitz decided against it. His ruling was the one the Supreme Court affirmed as it made school integration the law of the land. It was hardly a universally popular decision. After the Milford school board admitted 11 African-American high-school students in September, the little city erupted in rioting, stoked by an outside rabble-rouser named Bryant Bowles and his National Association for the Advancement of White People.

Any great unrest typically brings calamity to the party in power. The president was Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, and the governor was Caleb Boggs, a Republican. Neither was on the ballot for the midterm election, but other Republicans were. The voters went to the polls in a fury, and although Delaware was a solid Republican state in those long-gone days, the Democrats swept all five statewide offices in a stunning backlash. There was also something else working against the Republicans that year. The 1954 election was the first time the state used voting machines, instead of paper ballots. It was a lot harder to buy an election, usually at the going rate of $5 and a half-pint of whiskey, when the voters were shielded by the privacy of the voting booth than when the political parties could give out marked ballots to cast. Both parties were known to buy votes, but the Republicans were hurt more by the switch to voting machines than the Democrats were. The Republicans had more money.

illustration by bruce macpherson

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