After a big election for Democrats, what’s next for GOP?

Town Crier Kirk Lawson, left, reads the return results on the Sussex County Courthouse balcony as Sussex County Sheriff Robert T. Lee looks on during the Return Day Parade in Georgetown on Thursday.( Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

GEORGETOWN — At Return Day 2014, two days after the most recent midterm election before this year, optimism was in the air among Republicans. The national party had just won back the Senate, while the Delaware GOP had gained a statewide seat and ended a Democratic supermajority in the state Senate.

This time around, things were different.

The first midterm election under President Donald Trump saw a strong showing by the Democratic Party nationally, and Delaware was no exception. Though Democrats picked up just three state offices, it’s who they beat that’s notable.

Members of the party upset two northern New Castle County Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Greg Lavelle and House Minority Whip Deborah Hudson. Most notably, Colleen Davis knocked off Treasurer Ken Simpler, whose 2014 victory had been the cause for celebration among Republicans.

Prior to Mr. Simpler’s win, the GOP had not claimed a statewide office held by a non-incumbent Republican in 20 years.

Now, however, Democrats not only remain in control of both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s office, the party also holds all nine statewide seats. It is believed to be the first time since 1970 one party has controlled every statewide office — and the first time the Democratic Party has since the 1800s.

“It is unhealthy to have one party in total control of a government entity, and everywhere that has been, corruption has followed, and it doesn’t matter which party,” outgoing Republican Auditor Tom Wagner, who did not seek re-election after 29 years in office, said at a brunch held for politicians and other political figures before the parade in Georgetown.

A member with the Sussex Post 8 American Legion waves an American Flag during the Return Day Parade in Georgetown on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

According to House Minority Leader Danny Short, a Seaford Republican, the Delaware GOP plans to engage outside consultants to review why the party lost and what it can do differently.

But members of the GOP have a big built-in disadvantage that has only been growing in recent years.

Going into the 2000 general election, 42.6 percent of Delaware’s 503,614 registered voters were Democrats and 34 percent were Republicans. As of Nov. 1, 47.4 percent of Delaware voters identified as Democrats. Just 27.9 were Republicans.

Before Tuesday, Delaware was one of eight states with its legislature and governor’s office held by Democrats.

President Trump also may have been an anchor weighing down some Republicans Tuesday. Democrat Hillary Clinton won the state’s three electoral votes two years ago, and President Trump remains unpopular with a majority of the population in Delaware.

Predictably, Republicans and Democrats differ on what the state being controlled by one party means.

Defeated U.S. Senate candidate Rob Arlett and his wife Lorna sit on the main stage at Return Day in Georgetown on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“I don’t think that’s healthy for our state, but will that alone be reason for people to want a more viable Republican Party? Not alone,” Mr. Simpler said.

“I think the Republican Party is going to have to do some soul-searching to figure out how, if it can’t overcome the registration deficit materially, how do you at least message to people that your brand is distinguishable from what’s happening at the national level, because clearly independents and Democratic voters came out in this election cycle and were registering dissatisfaction with things that went beyond Delaware.

“And Republicans facing the registration deficit, I think it’s going to be very challenging for a new candidate to message through that unless there is some thoughtful position that resonates with those independents and soft Democrat voters.”

Trey Paradee waves while walking during the Return Day Parade in Georgetown on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Rep. Short described Mr. Simpler’s loss as a big blow to the party, although he characterized this cycle as an “anomaly” with many voters casting ballots strongly influenced by national factors.

Sen. Chris Coons, who was not on the ballot Tuesday, said he believes the Delaware GOP needs to shift toward the center but, like others, noted that with President Trump in the White House, policy proposals may not matter much to Democratic and independent voters.

While he admitted it is beneficial to have two strong parties, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, who represents Rehoboth Beach, said the key thing is having the right people in office.

“If you let it go to your head that we now control all the statewide offices and both chambers … there could be problems, but so far, we’ve had both chambers as well as the governor’s office,” he said. “I think you’ve seen honest debate. I think you see raucous discussion sometimes, but you also see some compromises.”

The GOP held five statewide seats and the state House before the 2000 election. It lost a U.S. Senate seat that year, the insurance commissioner’s office in 2004, the attorney general’s post in 2005 and the House in 2008.

Senator Tom Carper walks in the Return Day Parade in Georgetown on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The party was expected to gain a Senate seat in 2010, but after longtime Rep. Mike Castle was upset by tea party candidate Christine O’Donnell in the Senate Republican primary that year, Chris Coons easily won the office. Meanwhile, John Carney was elected to the U.S. House, giving the First State an entirely Democratic congressional delegation for the first time in nearly 70 years.

While the General Assembly will undoubtedly pursue some Democratic goals over the next two years, the party is not a monolith, and members differ even on core issues like gun control and minimum wage. Also aiding the minority is the fact Delaware politicians have long championed the “Delaware Way,” a compromise-based approach.

“I think we’ll have to try to make sure we find balance,” the now Gov. Carney, who was elected in 2016, said.

Delaware is politically divided based on geography: Of the 25 legislative districts located at least partially in Kent or Sussex counties, 19 are held by Republicans. Conversely, of the 37 districts that sit entirely in New Castle County, the most populous and northernmost county, Democrats have 32.

Gov. Carney does not see that geographical division as a problem, saying most Delawareans hold similar priorities regardless of location and party affiliation.

Rep. Schwartzkopf had a similar sentiment. Delaware may be a blue state, he said, but the decision-makers get along well.

“We don’t have half the problems (big states) do, because we talk to each other and we communicate,” he said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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