Polarized politics: GOP dips as Democrats take state control

DOVER — Let’s wind the clocks back 20 years, to the eve of the 2000 general election. The iPod was still a concept, Michael Jordan was enjoying his second retirement and Delaware was considered a moderate state.

At the time, the state Senate was controlled by the Democratic Party, with the House of Representatives held by the Republican Party. Five statewide offices belonged to the GOP, including two of the three congressional posts, while Democrats held the other four statewide offices, among them governor and one senatorial spot.

At the time, the First State was known as a bellwether for the presidential election, with Delaware voters picking the winning presidential candidate in 12 consecutive contests. From 1952 to 1996, Delawareans voted for the Republican nominee seven times and the Democratic choice five times.

That’s all in the past.

Today, Democrats hold all nine statewide offices and both chambers of the General Assembly. The state’s three electoral votes have gone to the Democratic nominee in the last seven presidential elections, three of which were won by Republicans.

That streak of voting for Democrats seems set to continue this year, with native son Joe Biden as the Democratic Party’s standard bearer.

What’s happened to the First State, long famed for the “Delaware Way,” a compromise-based approach between politicians and insiders?

As the United States has become more polarized in recent decades, with Americans, especially on the right, drifting away from the center, Delaware has seen a similar impact.

Today, Delaware Republicans are increasingly becoming an endangered species, at least in New Castle County, which holds approximately 57% of the state’s population.

Changing demographics

Going into the 2000 election, 42.6% of Delaware’s 503,614 registered voters were Democrats, 34% were Republicans and 23.4% were independents. As of Oct. 1 of this year, 47.7% of voters here were Democrats, 27.8% were Republicans and 24.5% were unaffiliated.

Put another way, there are about 231,000 more voters in the First State today than 20 years ago. Fifty-nine percent of those additional voters are Democrats. Just 14% are Republicans.

It’s not that long ago New Castle was the Republican stronghold while Downstate belonged to the Democrats. But over time, conservative Democrats died off or flipped to the Republican Party while liberal Republicans did something similar, and the current divisions became solidified.

Before the 2000 election, five of the eight Senate seats held by Republicans were in New Castle, while Democrats controlled five of eight downstate posts. Of the 27 House seats in New Castle, 16 belonged to the GOP.

Today?

Eleven of 13 Senate seats and 21 of 25 House seats located partially or completely in New Castle are Democratic, and there’s a good chance that number is even larger after Nov. 3.

Similarly, 13 of 14 legislative seats in Sussex County now are controlled by Republicans.

That pattern is even more pronounced when taking local offices into account: All five County Council seats, as well as the four row offices, are held by Republicans in Sussex. In New Castle, each of the 13 County Council members, the county executive and the four row officeholders are Democrats — and that doesn’t even take into account Wilmington, a deep-blue city.

Only Kent County remains purple, and even there affiliation is segmented. Dover and the immediate surrounding areas are blue, while the more rural communities throughout the rest of the county are mostly red.

The 12th Representative District, a sprawling northern New Castle district that rests along the Twelve-Mile Circle and covers Hockessin, Greenville and a large rural area, is an excellent example of the larger trends Delaware has seen. In 2000, it had 14,425 registered voters, 45.3% of whom were Republicans and 31.3% of whom were Democrats, and the district voted for George W. Bush in the presidential election.

Today, the GOP no longer has a plurality there. In fact, of the 20,283 registered voters, Republicans account for 34.8%, while Democrats make up 38.9%. In 2016, the district went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

Those changing demographics made it ripe for a flip, and in 2018 Democrats took out Rep. Deborah Hudson, who had spent 24 years holding the seat.

In a similar vein, the four remaining Republican lawmakers from above the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal are in Democratic cross hairs this cycle. Democrats believe they have an excellent chance of taking out at least one or two of Sens. Cathy Cloutier and Anthony Delcollo and Reps. Mike Ramone and Mike Smith, each of whom represents a district that voted for Mrs. Clinton in 2016.

Some Republicans, particularly in New Castle, switched their affiliation ahead of the 2008 state primary election to vote for Jack Markell, who won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and then served two terms. The same thing happened with some Wilmington residents prior to the 2016 mayoral primary, hoping to back Mike Purzycki, who emerged victorious in a close race.

What’s driving this shift?

While it’s impossible to definitively say, political insiders and observers have identified several factors.

The unpopularity of President George W. Bush, who held office from 2001 to 2009, drove some Americans, especially younger ones, to the left. At the same time, Delaware has become more diverse.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 74.6% of Delaware residents were White in 2000. As of 2019, that percentage was down to 69.2. The difference may not seem huge, but it represents tens of thousands more people of color, who tend to vote Democratic.

Some politically minded people register as Democrats because their odds of winning are generally better that way, said Paul Brewer, the research director at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication. Similarly, voters who might be Republicans in a red state like Indiana belong to the Democratic Party here due to its stronger presence and the primary contests that are often in effect in the true election, he noted.

One of the ways the gap between the left and the right manifests itself is in who is running — or more accurately, who isn’t.

Of the 52 legislative seats up for election this fall, nearly half will be filled without a contest. In other words, 25 individuals, all of whom are incumbents, will be elected on Nov. 3 without facing an opponent in either the primary or general contest.

Democrats have not put up candidates in nine districts, eight of which are in Sussex. Seventeen seats will have not Republican nominees, just two of which are outside New Castle.

Seven individuals had no opponent in 2018, down from 23 two years prior.

Fractures

The 2010 Senate primary between longtime U.S. Rep. Mike Castle and Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell also fractured the party. One of the first high-profile instances of a Republican legislator being upset from the right, the race drew plenty of national attention.

Mike Castle (Delaware State News file photo)

In the aftermath of his loss, Mr. Castle declined to endorse Ms. O’Donnell, who many saw as an extremist.

Mr. Castle had been expected to win the Senate seat, but with Ms. O’Donnell on the ticket instead, Democrat Chris Coons claimed victory in the general election.

The party increasingly became less relevant in New Castle, and while it has surged to new heights in Sussex (which had more registered Democrats than Republicans until a few years ago), there’s no making up for the fact the more urban New Castle is the state’s major population center.

Some big donors left the party after 2010, which also shifted it to being more Sussex-centric and, in a way, grass-roots.

Republican Party Chairwoman Jane Brady said the scars from 2010 were still visible when she took office last year.

She said she believes Republicans are more unified now, working together to defeat Democrats instead of bickering over who is a true conservative.

Republican Party Chairwoman Jane Brady said the scars from 2010 were still visible when she took office last year. She said she believes Republicans are more unified now, working together to defeat Democrats instead of bickering over who is a true conservative. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

“My job has been to create the neuron links between these little pods of energy, strengthen the brain, strengthen the party,” she said.

Stagnation

Over the past decade-plus, the GOP has struggled to find quality candidates, Dr. Brewer said. Individuals like Ms. O’Donnell and 2018 Senate nominee Rob Arlett have been unable to appeal to most Delawareans, generally holding positions to the right of the average voter, he noted.

Few of the Republican statewide nominees have had prior political experience or name recognition, something that’s perhaps more impactful here because of the lack of a major TV station in the state, he said.

Many districts that were represented by moderate Republicans 20 years ago now belong to Democrats, while solid red ones have generally only moved further to the right, Dr. Brewer said.

Perhaps the lone bright spot for the Delaware Republican Party in the 2010s was Ken Simpler’s 2014 victory in the race for state treasurer. With Republican turnout strong across the nation that year, Mr. Simpler became the first non-incumbent from the Delaware GOP elected to a statewide office in 20 years. Even before he had been sworn in, he was mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate, a sign of his potential appeal but also of the party’s short bench.

Unfortunately for Republicans, that did not signal a rebirth, as Mr. Simpler lost in 2018. That defeat, coupled with Auditor Tom Wagner’s retirement, means the Democratic Party now holds every statewide office for the first time in Delaware history.

John Fluharty, the former executive director of the state GOP, believes the chief issue is in identifying and supporting good candidates.

“Ken Simplers and Tom Wagners don’t grow on trees. Until the GOP, and real mainstream conservatives, decide that they are willing to invest time and money into candidate recruitment, they will continue to get the Lauren Witzkes of the world,” he wrote in an email.

Ms. Witzke, the party’s current nominee for the U.S. Senate, is a political newcomer who has been criticized by some for her far-right views and social media activity. She is a huge underdog in next month’s faceoff.

To the executive director of the Delaware Democratic Party, the reason for the GOP’s decline here is obvious: a shift to the right and a failure to push proposals most Americans want.

Previous Republican leaders backed “policies that perpetuated vast amounts of economic inequality and created the kind of resentment and the kind of angst and anger and frankly now downright bigotry that is central to today’s Republican Party,” Jesse Chadderdon said. “I would argue the previous generation of Republican leaders made this bed.”

Possible futures

Until the GOP takes a hard look in the mirror and rejects hatred, its future here is dim, Mr. Chadderdon said.

“Unfortunately, without those voters there seems to be a sense that the Republican Party doesn’t have a coalition that can win,” he opined.

A thumping in November could cause self-reflection that shifts the party toward the center, Dr. Brewer noted. It could also, however, lead to the GOP doubling down and “becoming more insular,” he believes.

The Delaware GOP’s best hope is for a moderate candidate who can raise significant amounts of money, perhaps from his or her own pocket, he said, citing blue states like Maryland and Massachusetts that have Republican governors.

But at the same time, he doesn’t see that as especially likely.

“I think Delaware is locked in to being blue at the presidential and congressional level for a long time to come,” Dr. Brewer said.

For her part, Ms. Brady doesn’t believe the sky is falling. She is optimistic about the odds of gaining a few seats in the General Assembly, noting several incumbent Democrats were taken out by progressive candidates, whom she believes do not represent the districts.

“It’s a long-term effort. It’s not going to show results overnight,” she said. “Do I think we have some opportunities this election? Yes, I do.”

Showing candidates the party values them and can provide assistance is crucial, Ms. Brady said, describing a campaign as an investment. Even if a candidate comes up short, a second bid could see different results.

Indeed, there are myriad examples of individuals running one year, losing and then running again and winning in the next election cycle, such as current House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst (a Democrat) and Sen. Bryant Richardson (a Republican).

Mr. Chadderdon had similar sentiments about eventually flipping Sussex, praising party activists who are working to turn the county blue. They remain committed despite few returns in the form of electoral victories so far, he said, expressing optimism about the Democrats’ future in the southernmost county.

Mr. Fluharty, who has become disillusioned with much of the GOP because of President Donald Trump, is still crossing his fingers for a more moderate GOP that can appeal to Americans who want less government.

“The future of the party lies with people like Mike Smith,” he said, referring to the current representative from the 22nd District in the Pike Creek area. “Young, mainstream and committed to building coalitions to solve problems.”