Delaware Grapevine by Celia Cohen: A Tale of Delaware Politics

Delaware’s Endangered Species

Delaware used to be a swing state. This should not be confused with a swinging state, like Nevada, which has Las Vegas.

Still, the swing state and the swinging state could be said to have something in common. What happens in Vegas should stay in Vegas, and politically speaking, what happened in Delaware used to stay in Delaware.

This meant that Delaware had its own special way of practicing politics.

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It swung easily between the parties in an intimacy only a small state could love—politics by consensus. For every Bill Roth, there was a Joe Biden. For every Tom Carper, there was a Mike Castle.

Nowadays it’s different. Like for every Joe Biden, there is a Beau Biden.

Where have you gone, Delaware Republican Party? Pete du Pont turns his lonely eyes to you.

There is no denying what has happened around here. It is a tale of Delaware politics and the deathly collapse of the two-party system, like something out of the darker parts of Harry Potter, only scarier, because it is no fantasy.

The new order came with the new century, not that the early signs of it were really clear.

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After 12 presidential elections of impeccable swing-state credentials, voting to send the winner to the White House every time, the voters in 2000 went for Al Gore over George Bush. For the moment it did not seem quite fair to revoke Delaware’s bellwether status, not with the country itself at cross purposes, giving the popular vote to Gore and the electoral vote to Bush.

Hanging chads can be like a hung jury. It is a little inconclusive.

In retrospect, though, Delaware actually did mean to vote for Gore. The state had quietly gone Democratic and would keep going Democratic.

Republicans are red,

Democrats are blue,

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John Kerry and Obama

Would win Delaware, too.


The Republicans had hollowed out. Not that it was all their fault.

For one thing, the Democrats became respectable. The good times under Bill Clinton as president and Tom Carper as governor let people stop shuddering about the Democrats as that ’70s party of George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, along with poor old Sherman Tribbitt, the governor who was undone by red ink, a teachers’ strike and a bank collapse that nearly took the state with it.

For another thing, the DuPont Co. was shrinking and slashing two-thirds of its state workforce during the 1990s. Jim Soles, the late political scientist from the University of Delaware, was the one who pointed out that the fallout for the state was not just economic, but political.

The company was a fountainhead of pro-business, low-tax and energetic civic-oriented people. If there had not already been a Republican Party, the DuPonters would have invented one, because inventing was what they did, and then they lived it, because better living through chemistry was also what they did.

DuPonters were candidates, DuPonters were campaign contributors, and DuPonters were political volunteers. Most of all, DuPonters were voters. When DuPont retreated, so did the Delaware Republicans.

It is ironic that the last DuPonter in state office is Dave Sokola, a Democratic state senator. The era of the Oval Elephant was over.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party nationally was moving rightward, ever rightward, from Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to George Bush to the Tea Party, and the state Republicans were pulled along, too, until they installed new officers who include John Sigler, a past president of the National Rifle Association, and Ellen Barrosse, the founder of A Rose and A Prayer, which is pro-life.

Yes, wise-guy Republicans are calling their party “Guns N’ Roses.”

This shift did not sit well with upstate suburban voters whose superior numbers drive the elections. They tend to be pragmatic, live-and-let-live folks. They do not like government messing with their morals or their money. They do not like intrusion from the right or the left.

Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum. Rushing into the center void was a new lineage of pro-business and energetic civic-oriented Democrats, not as stringent on the taxes as the Republicans, but two out of three was not bad.

Say hello to Jack Markell, the MBA governor who once was an executive at Nextel, where he coined the very name for the telecommunications company that later merged into Sprint. Also to Chris Coons, the senator who previously was a lawyer working in the family business, namely W. L. Gore & Associates, the makers of Gore-Tex.

Coons did get called a “bearded Marxist” because of an essay he wrote in college, but really. He is about as much a bearded Marxist as Ebenezer Scrooge.

The voters had not changed. The political parties did.

This explains what happened to Mike Castle. When he needed moderate voters in the Republican senatorial primary in 2010 against Christine O’Donnell, they were not there. They had ceded the party to the conservatives and gone elsewhere.

Castle Republicans had become Markell Democrats.

Delaware has spent the last decade or so shedding Republican officeholders, no matter if they were as prominent as Roth and Castle or as prosaic as legislators, leaving the Democrats with the governor, the entire congressional delegation, every statewide official except the auditor, and the General Assembly.

Under the current conditions, the Republicans’ only consolation is Sussex County. Not that it should come as a surprise. Sussex is such a world unto itself that it has inspired the droll observation that Delaware actually has three political parties—the Democrats, the Republicans and Sussex County.

Sussex votes conservative. Sussex has always voted conservative. Like the voters in the Old South, it used to go Democratic but it goes Republican now. Only its attitude is the same.

What is this with Delaware nowadays? Even the Democratic protectorate of Massachusetts could replace Ted Kennedy with a Republican.

The two-party system is as American as Uncle Sam. Its decline here is troubling to nobody less than John Daniello, the Democratic state chair, who said, “I’m concerned about it. The job of both parties is to compromise with their single-issue groups and get to the middle.”

Come back, Republicans. Even the Democrats need you.