Rules of Elections

Delaware’s elections have their own set of precedents, including “You do not embarrass the electorate.”

Illustration by Tom Labaff

Elections are notorious for having a lot of laws but not much in the way of rules. Whatever people can get away with, they do. Look no further than the Clintons. Email? Donations to the foundation? As they perfected a long time ago, it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Not that there are no rules in elections, but there are organic rules, stuff that happens over and over again until they might as well be rules. Delaware has its own set of them. These rules are not the obvious ones, like Sussex County will vote conservative or no candidates in their right mind would ever campaign for a sales tax, but the unseen rules that mysteriously govern the currents of the election.

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Whatever, nobody has been able to break them yet.

Rule 1: Nobody gets elected governor anymore without having already run and won statewide.
This is a small state. People here like to think they know everybody else, and that includes their governor. No first-timers need apply. This rule has been in effect ever since the parties did away with choosing their gubernatorial nominees by conventions, controlled by the party leadership, and went to primaries, controlled by the voters, in the early 1970s. Here is the record since: Sherman Tribbitt? Previously the Democratic lieutenant governor. Pete du Pont? The Republican congressman beforehand. Mike Castle? The Republican lieutenant governor. Tom Carper? The Democratic congressman and treasurer. Ruth Ann Minner? The Democratic lieutenant governor. Jack Markell? The Democratic treasurer. This rule could make certain people very happy, either now or later, namely, John Carney, the Democratic congressman and former lieutenant governor; Matt Denn, the Democratic attorney general and previously the lieutenant governor and insurance commissioner; and Ken Simpler, the Republican treasurer.

Rule 2: “You do not embarrass the electorate.”
Jim Soles, the late political scientist from the University of Delaware, was the one who coined this rule. As he put it, “In Delaware politics, you do not embarrass the electorate. The people who do that have all been defeated.” This rule is not about silly embarrassments, like Joe Biden over-whispering to the president that Obamacare is a BFD. That is just “Our Joe.” This is for seriously humiliating situations, like what happened with Charlie Terry. He was the Democratic governor who sent the National Guard into Wilmington during the riots of 1968. It was all right to send the troops in. The problem was he never took them out. It became the longest military occupation of an American city since the Civil War and a national laughingstock. It got so bad that Calvin Trillin, the political humorist, came in to see for himself and wrote scathingly about the patrols. People can look it up in “Corporate Capital,”a city history by Carol Hoffecker. Terry lost the 1968 election. It did not help his cause that he also had a heart attack in October. It would probably be helpful to remember this rule as Dennis Williams runs for re-election as the Democratic mayor in Wilmington in 2016. It was not good to be the one in charge when Newsweek called the city “Murder Town USA.”

Rule 3: The curse of the Senate Republicans.
When Babe Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees, Boston paid for it with 85 years of champion-less baseball. Something like that has been going on in the state Senate. Two Republican state senators defected in 1973 to give the Democrats the majority, and the Republicans have been mired in the minority ever since. Whenever the Republicans have come close to taking over the chamber, something happens. They got within two seats in the 21-member chamber when they won a special election in 1994 by persuading Margaret Rose Henry, who was a Democrat, to run on their ticket, but Henry soon flipped back to the Democrats, and that was that. The Republicans thought they had a path to the majority if the elections broke their way in 2012 and 2014, but no such luck. Instead, one of their state senators retired and another lost.The Republicans are currently down 12-9, and it does not look good for them in 2016. In Babe Ruth reckoning, they would be about halfway through the curse. Yikes.

Rule 4: It is not nice to fool the voters.
Fool with Mother Nature? She looks like a creampuff compared to voters who get fooled with. Look at what happened with Joe Booth, a Republican from Sussex County. He was having such a nice political career until he forgot the rule. Booth seemed charmed. He got to Legislative Hall by taking out a sitting Democratic state representative in 2002, a big year for the Republicans as the first election since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Next, he became a genuine Republican hero in 2009, when he won a special election for a state Senate seat that had been on the Democratic side of the aisle for 37 years. Booth had a scare in 2010 when the Tea Party came after him in a Republican primary, but the charmed life held, and he survived. Only afterward did he let on that he was going to take an administrative job with the Sussex Technical School District. Oops. The voters were not amused. Not only did they think he pulled a fast one, they looked at his double-dipping like he was double-crossing them, and out he went in 2012.

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Rule 5: There is always a surprise.
Check with “President” Al Gore about this one, or with “Senator” Mike Castle. 

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