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Delaware Grapevine by Celia Cohen: Election 2012

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Only Moses endured more than the Republicans in the state Senate, and they are about to surpass him.

Moses wandered in the biblical wilderness for 40 years. The Republicans are wandering in the political wilderness, out of power, mired in the minority in the upper chamber of the Delaware General Assembly.

The last time the Republicans were in the majority was so long ago that people thought spam was something they could get only from the canned goods aisle, not from email with enticing offers involving Nigerian bank accounts.

It was so long ago, Joe Biden had been a U.S. senator for four days.

Meanwhile the state House of Representatives bounced back and forth between Republican and Democratic control five times over the same span, even with one remarkable 24-year streak that put the Republicans in charge from 1984 until 2008.

The minority is not a fun place to be. It always loses. There was once a legendary exchange in the House, when the Democrats had the majority and went on a spree, ignoring the parliamentary rules and passing whatever they wanted until a frustrated Meg Manning, a Republican representative, had enough. She held up a copy of the rule book as she addressed Sherman Tribbitt, the speaker who later became governor.

“Mr. Speaker, what is this book for?” Manning asked.

“That book is for the minority,” Tribbitt said.

It does not look good for the Republicans to reach the promised land of 11 votes for the majority in the 21-member Senate in this election, so Moses is about to get company.

The last day the Republicans had the Senate was Jan. 9, 1973. They had won the majority fair and square at the ballot box in 1972, outnumbering the Democrats 11-10, but on this very first day of the new legislative session, there was a coup.

Two Republican senators connived to vote with the Democrats and hand over the majority in a deal to get power for themselves. Oh, it was a world-class snatch, right up there with the land grab of Manhattan for $24.

Mike Castle was in the chamber as a 33-year-old Republican state senator. In a long public life as a legislator, lieutenant governor, governor and congressman—not to mention the most famous casualty of the Tea Party movement—he never got that day of betrayal out of his mind. Years and years later, he still smoldered.

“It was an act of treachery, basically. I thought the whole act was wrong,” Castle said in an April 1988 interview for the book, “Only in Delaware.”

The Democrats were in, the Republicans were out, and it has been that way ever since.

The Senate even missed out on the Republican glory days in the 1980s. As Democratic as the state is now, it was Republican back then. The governor was Republican, the congressional delegation was Republican, the lieutenant governor was Republican, the House was Republican—everything of consequence was Republican except for Joe Biden as a senator and Tom Carper as a youthful state treasurer—and still nothing doing.

For now, the Senate stands at 14 Democrats and seven Republicans. The Republicans are so downtrodden, there is only one senatorial district that has more Republican than Democratic voters, and the Democrats snared it.

The district sprawls over Chateau Country, home to the du Ponts and the only hunt club in Delaware, and it has Mike Katz, a Democratic senator, representing it. The best that can be said is that he is a doctor.

Politics is nothing if not capricious. Strangely enough, the Republicans had a chance to effectively assume control of the Senate in the current legislative session, and Katz was in the thick of it.

Katz and some of the other Democratic senators were fed up with Tony DeLuca, the Democratic president pro tem, who runs the chamber. DeLuca could be scrappy, and his approach to his fellow senators might be described as me-first-among-equals.

If Katz and his little band could round up all of the Republican senators, they had enough votes to oust DeLuca and create a majority-by-coalition that would give the Republicans a big say in running the chamber.

It was a fight to the finish. Dave Sokola, a Democratic senator, was so determined to vote out DeLuca that he showed up for the roll call even though he had just had hip surgery five days earlier. As gritty as it was, Sokola could have saved himself the trouble. Colin Bonini, a Republican senator, balked at sticking with the rest of his caucus and cast the deciding vote to keep DeLuca as the pro tem.

This is the way it goes in the minority. It can be its own worst enemy.

Even after all that manna from heaven, the Republicans looked like they could conceivably squeeze into the Senate majority with the 2012 election if everything broke their way.

It did not hurt that the Democrats looked like they were trying to give the Senate away. At the heart of it was dummymandering, a wonderful term that was thought up by a pair of political scientists.

Dummymandering is the opposite of gerrymandering. Every 10 years—and last year was one of them—the legislature redistricts itself to even out the population. Gerrymandering is a 200-year-old word taken from a salamander and Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts governor who was involved in creating a weirdly drawn legislative district that resembled a lizard. Gerrymandering helps out the party in power. Dummymandering is boneheaded gerrymandering that helps out the other party.

A funny thing happened when the Senate redistricted. Some senators who voted against DeLuca for pro tem found themselves drawn into districts forcing them to run for their political lives.

Katz wound up with Greg Lavelle, the Republican minority leader in the House, as an opponent. Sokola was tossed into the same district as Liane Sorenson, the Republican minority whip in the Senate. If the Republicans could win those races and pick up seats in Sussex County, where the voters like their candidates conservative, they could beat the 40-year curse and the majority would be theirs.

If it seemed too good to be true, it was. Sorenson decided to retire. Bob Venables, a 79-year-old conservative Democrat whose Sussex County district most assuredly would have gone Republican if he retired, decided not to. It was too much to overcome.

Instead of fighting to get to the majority, the Republicans are left struggling not to fall further into the minority. There is no telling how long they will continue to wander in the political wilderness.

Holy Moses.