Could state GOP’s future be on the line in general election?

DOVER — At the time of the 2000 general election, 42.6 percent of Delaware’s 503,614 registered voters were Democrats and 34 percent were Republicans.

Nearly 18 years later, the divide is much greater: As of Sept. 1, the state had 691,763 registered voters, 47.3 percent of whom are Democrats and 27.8 percent of whom are Republicans.

While the parties gained nearly 190,000 more registered voters, the Democrats banked the majority of them.

Those statistics encapsulate the state of politics in Delaware in the 21st century. As the country as a whole has become polarized, so has Delaware.

Going into the 2000 election, Republicans held five of nine statewide elected offices and the state House. Today, Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly, and the only statewide seats belonging to Republicans are treasurer and auditor.

The 2000 election also saw the state go for Democratic presidential nominee, Al Gore, snapping a 48-year streak of picking the winner of the contest. The Democratic nominee has won the state’s three electoral votes in each of the subsequent four presidential elections as well.

Delaware is one of just eight states where the governor’s office and legislature are controlled by the Democratic Party. Twenty-five states are controlled entirely by the GOP.

Every election is important, but those facts illustrate why Nov. 6 carries extra implications for the Delaware Republican Party.

Delaware State University political science professor Sam Hoff attributes the First State’s shift to the left to a combination of policies and individual candidates.

The unpopularity of President George W. Bush and the appeal of Barack Obama drove voters to the Democratic Party nationwide, and Delaware was no exception. From the 2006 to the 2008 general elections, Delaware gained nearly 45,000 voters. About 34,000 of them were Democrats, while just 3,000 were Republicans.

Delaware went big for then Sen. Obama in 2008, no doubt influenced by the presence of his running mate, Joe Biden, the state’s senior U.S. senator. With that strong push from the left, voters flipped the state House to the Democratic Party for the first time in 24 years.

Two years later, tea party candidate Christine O’Donnell upset moderate Republican Mike Castle in the Senate Republican primary. Mr. Castle, who spent 18 years as the state’s lone member of the U.S. House and served two terms as governor, was projected to defeat Chris Coons in the general election.

Instead, he was taken out by the right and Ms. O’Donnell lost the general election, leaving Republicans with only one statewide seat.

“Had things been different in 2010, we’d probably have Sen. Castle still and we might be thinking of a more balanced congressional delegation,” Dr. Hoff said.

The state’s two members of Congress on the ballot Nov. 6 seem quite likely to retain their seats, with a recent poll from the University of Delaware giving Sen. Tom Carper a lead of 60-22 over Rob Arlett and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester a 54-26 advantage over Scott Walker.

Data journalism website FiveThirtyEight has the odds of both candidates keeping their offices at greater than 99 percent.

The potential for a November “blue wave” bodes ill for Republicans. If Democrats motivated by a dislike of President Trump turn out in big numbers, the GOP could slip even farther.

In the primary earlier this month, 25 percent of registered Democrats, the second-highest figure in at least 18 years and more than double the previous high for an off-year primary in that time, cast ballots.

On the other hand, there is still some reason for optimism for Republicans, starting with the fact voter registration numbers aren’t everything: There are more registered Republicans than Democrats in just 12 of 62 legislative districts in Delaware, yet the General Assembly is not nearly that lopsided.

The primary also saw the Republican Party post its second highest primary turnout since at least 2002, at 20 percent.

Two statewide seats are open, as Auditor Tom Wagner, a Republican, is retiring after 29 years, while Democratic Attorney General Matt Denn is stepping aside after his first term running the Department of Justice.

Those retirements mean if voter registration and primary turnout hold, Democrats will flip a statewide seat.

The party is contesting 17 of the 21 legislative seats currently held by Republicans that are up in this cycle, while Republicans have candidates seeking 17 of 30 such Democratic seats.

“We’re going to be competitive in places people don’t expect us to be,” Delaware Democratic Party Executive Director Jesse Chadderdon said, noting candidates and officials are not taking their “intrinsic advantages” for granted.

The GOP is basically punting on defeating Rep. Blunt Rochester after Mr. Walker defeated the party’s preferred candidate, Lee Murphy, in a primary. The party officially disavowed Mr. Walker two weeks after the primary over a series of bizarre, potentially inflammatory statements he made, and the Republican state chairman said Mr. Walker appears to be a racist.

The disavowal means the party will effectively shun Mr. Walker, not inviting him to Republican events or providing party resources.

That same week also saw the resignation of the New Castle County GOP chairman become public. That chairman, Peter Kopf, resigned due to dissatisfaction with Mr. Arlett.

The Arlett campaign in a statement said Republican candidates “have enough to do to convince independents and Democrats” without infighting.

Counterpoint

The GOP has been chipping away at the Democratic majority in the Senate and could make a major statement by flipping one seat. Come Nov. 6, the most important race on the ballot might be the 17th Senatorial District, where Camden Mayor Justin King and Rep. Trey Paradee square off in the battle to succeed Democratic Sen. Brian Bushweller. A victory by Mr. King, who won the GOP primary, would potentially give the Republican Party control of the Senate for the first time in 46 years.

Justin King

Should Mr. King win the district — which is majority Democratic — and the GOP defend its five seats up for election, the party would gain more power than it has had since losing the House in 2008.

After 2008, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a ratio of more than 3-1 in the Senate, holding 16 of 21 seats. The GOP picked up one member in a 2009 special election and then proceeded to gain a seat in every one of the next four general elections, meaning Democrats control the chamber by the slimmest of margins.

Delaware Republican Party Executive Director Emily Taylor said Republicans are optimistic about their chances.

“When you have good candidates, I think it’s easy for you to get excited,” she said.

It remains to be seen how much national factors, such as views on President Trump and the Republican Party’s handling of the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, sway voters. Ms. Taylor expressed confidence voters will focus on local issues and pick the best candidates regardless of political affiliation.

Party Chairman Mike Harrington believes the GOP has an excellent chance to flip the Delaware Senate, unseat Sen. Carper, defend the auditor’s office and claim the attorney general’s post.

He expects attorney general nominee Bernard Pepukayi, who is black, to attract minority voters, saying the party is seeking to convince black Delawareans to vote Republican and has intensified voter registration efforts.

“Many of the elections that have occurred across the country indicate that there’s not a blue wave, and I do not believe that a blue wave is going to go through this state,” he said.

While the UD poll gave Sen. Carper a hefty lead, Mr. Harrington said internal polling has the race much closer. Surveys can be wrong, he noted, pointing to polls that expected Hillary Clinton to win the presidency on Nov. 8, 2016.

“It reminds me of the evening of Trump when all the media across the country, every single one, predicted that he was going to lose, and the thing they’ve forgotten about is the silent majority of the voting population,” he said.

Treasurer Ken Simpler, who became the first non-incumbent Republican to win statewide office in 20 years in 2014, is one of the party’s biggest reasons for hope. Mr. Simpler, who was not available for comment, is considered by many political insiders and observers to be the GOP’s best chance to win the governor’s seat in either 2020 or 2024.

“It may be as easy as just that one candidate who’s able to attract voters,” Dr. Hoff noted.

A successful 2018 cycle would give the GOP confidence heading into 2020 and could start shifting the balance of power. On the other hand, Democrats would love nothing more than to deliver a statement to the Republican Party. Stay tuned.

 

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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