During a recent luncheon held in his honor, former governor Russell Peterson urged guests to “do the right thing.” For Wilmington attorney Tom Kovach, those words were an epiphany. “It inspired me to get involved,” Kovach says.
At first, that meant looking for the best Republican candidate to support in a late 2008 special election in the 6th Representative District. That candidate turned out to be Kovach. The challenge for the first-time office-seeker then became figuring out how to run successfully in a heavily Democratic district.
“I decided to run as myself,” Kovach says. “I would be an independent voice expressing my core values, which I believed were in synch with those of the district.”
His strategy proved to be a good one. In a district where less than 30 percent of the registered voters are Republicans, Kovach captured 51 percent of the vote. The local Republican establishment took notice.
“He showed us we have weathered the storm,” says state committee chairman Tom Ross.
The storm Ross referred to was the tsunami that was Barack Obama. In the aftermath of the last general election, Republicans found themselves the minority in the U.S. House and Senate. Similarly, Delaware Republicans lost their majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in a quarter century, leaving the party without control in either the executive or legislative branches of government.
What gives? Can the party find new footing?
National Committeewoman Priscilla Rakestraw believes the explanation for the party’s dismal showing in the elections was that it had lost its way.
“We assumed a much bigger mandate than what the people had granted us,” Rakestraw says. “We became just like the [Democrats] in terms of spending, as well as on personal and political ethics.”
Sussex County Recorder of Deeds John Brady felt so strongly about the party’s defection from its core values that he bolted for the Democrats last February—not unlike Peterson had done in 1992. Brady insists the decision wasn’t his own. “I didn’t leave the party,” he says. “The party left me.”
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Political science professor Joseph Pika of the University of Delaware sees a parallel between national and local affairs. “Republicans have lost their moderates,” he says. “What’s left right now is a national Republican Party dominated by conservative Southern and Western interests.”
The state party is a reflection of the national party and national trends, Pika says. That means independents here have chosen sides based on where they live. In moderate Republican districts, independents have sided with Democrats. Independents in conservative districts moved to the Republicans.
Former Republican Senate Minority Leader Charlie Copeland, a candidate for lieutenant governor last year, says Republicans have spent too much time preaching to the choir. “We have not communicated our solutions to a broader audience,” he says. “We spend a lot of time talking to ourselves. That’s not helpful, and it has to change for Republicans to be successful.”
Former Republican House Majority Leader Wayne Smith sees a change in Delaware’s demographics as the cause of a disconnect between the party and the electorate. He believes immigration of residents from states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey has turned the state more Democrat.
“Even the Republicans who have located here from those states are the more moderate, [Arlen] Specter Republicans,” Smith says. He adds that 14 of 41 districts were predominantly Republican in 2002. By last year, the number dropped to four of 41.
Copeland believes learning from past Republican successes—and failures—may point the way to a more successful future. That starts with government spending.
“When [Newt] Gingrich introduced the Contract For America back in 1994, when Republicans captured the House, government spending was held to a level that matched the rate of inflation and the population growth,” Copeland says. He recalls 434 of 435 House Republican candidates signing off on Republican values as reflected in the contract.
But that didn’t last long. “The Republicans who took the House in 1994 had self-limited themselves to three terms,” Copeland says. “But after those representatives retired following that third term, they were replaced by Republicans who were no longer committed to those self-imposed term limits.”
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Copeland believes a desire for longevity in office breeds spending, since spending helps show what representatives delivered for their districts. “Republicans lost power due to spending,” Copeland say. “Bush and congressional Republicans implemented big-government programs—and look where we are. Voters decided they may as well elect Democrats.”
Bob Chadwick, a former executive director for the Republican State Committee, believes losing the governorship, which it did in 1992, was key to losing influence here in Delaware.
“Having the governorship is a powerful dynamic to win legislative power here,” Chadwick says. “We’ve had strong candidates like Bill Lee (2000, 2004 and 2008) lose a close race, and we’ve had top candidates like Dale Wolf choose not to run at key moments in time.”
Good people and bad timing, though, may point to a structural failure on the part of the state committee.
“We’ve become a one-and-done party,” says Chadwick. “Good candidates don’t want to try, because they feel the support won’t be there if they’re not successful the first time around. We’ve got to demonstrate we’re in it for the long haul and that we’ll continue to raise money for them until they are successful.”
Pika believes the road back for local Republicans begins with a confession, then a pledge.
“Admit to the big-government spending mistakes of the Bush years,” he says, “and restate the sense of competence, knowledge and experience in approaching issues on a non-ideological basis.”
In other words, it’s time to sign an armistice in the so-called culture war. Kovach says Delaware Republicans must return to a fiscal conservatism that seeks to have government assist, but not control, lives. “Government should be as small as practical to be able to promote business activity without overregulation and to promote growth.”
As for the culture war—or the “social issues agenda,” as Republicans now prefer to call it—Brady believes the influence of the former Moral Majority of the Reagan and Bush eras is waning. “Delaware has changed a lot since the Republican Revolution of 1994,” Brady says. “The debate on social issues has to change to one that reflects a commitment to an overall quality of life.”
For Brady, those issues are being promoted best by Democrats. But Delaware Republicans are getting the message that Brady’s party switch has sent: Move too far to the right and you lose moderates, who in Delaware control the margin of victory. According to Pika, Democrat Jack Markell’s election as governor proves the point.
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“Markell appealed to Delaware’s independents more so than the [Democratic] party’s favorite, John Carney,” Pika says. “Republicans need to find Markell-type Republicans to appeal to moderates and independents.”
The poster boy for such a Republican moderate is, in Pika’s view, Congressman Mike Castle, who has won reelection eight times with very comfortable margins. Delaware Republicans have taken note. Call it the Be Like Mike promotional campaign.
“The message Delaware voters are sending is, ‘We trust you, Mike, to do what’s best,’” Rakestraw says. “The key for us is not to worry about how voters are registered, but to appeal to them on issues of trust.”
Ross sees strengthening party organization by using technology and the Internet to find young, active people who are looking to make Delaware a better place to live and work. “Governors Castle and [Pete] du Pont reduced taxes and created jobs,” Ross says. “It’s the opposite of what we have now.”
Based on the party’s breadth and scope, Copeland sees the future as a positive one. “A party that embraces both [Pat] Buchanan and [Ron] Paul is a pretty big party with a diverse group of thinkers,” he says.
Ross sums up the party’s traditional appeal by the location of its state headquarters on Lancaster Avenue in Wilmington.
“We’re right out front here in a working class neighborhood, between a Pathmark and a Happy Harry’s. Anyone from anywhere can walk in here at any time.”
Foot traffic may take awhile, though, according to Smith. “Delaware Republicans are like Democrats in Oklahoma: prisoners of demographics and location.”