Re-election guaranteed for many Delaware lawmakers in 2016

DOVER — Twenty-three state legislators running for election this year did not face a challenge in the primary and will not have an opponent in next month’s general election.

Eleven senatorial and all 41 representative districts are on the ballot next month, but many of the current officeholders have an extraordinarily easy path to re-election.

Nineteen representatives — almost half of the 40 incumbents in the House of Representatives — are guaranteed to be re-elected in November after not facing any competition from within their party last month. In the Senate, four members did not have to hold off any opponents.

Two more lawmakers only had competition in the primary.

In 2014, 14 legislators, all in the House, had no challengers in either election.

This year, most of the incumbents not facing opponents are New Castle County Democrats. While more districts are in New Castle than Kent and Sussex combined, the state’s northernmost county still has a disproportionate number of legislators without opponents. Seventeen of the 37 members of the General Assembly from districts based in New Castle (or mostly in New Castle, in the case of the 14th Senatorial District) will win another term unencumbered.

Two of the incumbents are in districts located primarily in Kent, while four represent parts Sussex.

The geographical imbalance can at least partially be traced back to the Democratic Party’s strength in New Castle County. About 52 percent of registered voters in New Castle are Democrats, easily the highest proportion of people belonging to any one party in the state’s three counties.

Delaware Republican Party Chairman Charlie Copeland said the significant voter edge the Democratic Party holds in New Castle County dissuades potential GOP candidates.

Charlie Copeland

Charlie Copeland

“The thing about Republicans is we’re pretty smart, and if you look at a district that’s 3-to-1 registration against you, why are you going to spend six months of your life, probably 30,000 of your own dollars … even if you get close you still lose,” he said.

The 23 incumbents with no opposition include both longtime lawmakers such as Sen. David McBride, a New Castle Democrat first elected in 1978, and newer members like Rep. David Bentz, a Newark Democrat who, with one year of service, is the General Assembly’s newest member.

Although nine lawmakers faced opposition from their own party this year, no incumbent legislators lost in the primary for the first time since 2008.

Five lawmakers, all representatives, have not had any challengers since 2010, and Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, has faced exactly one opponent in her 14 years in office. That came in 2002, when she triumphed in a primary to replace the officeholder who had moved to another district.

Her 5th Representative District heavily favors Democrats and is in fact one of the most lopsided districts in the state based on voter registration figures.

Speaking generally, Claire Snyder-Hall, lobbyist for the good government group Common Cause Delaware, said it is “problematic” when officials do not face challengers and are re-elected over and over.

“A healthy democracy requires competitive elections, because if you don’t have any competition for an office then there’s no way to guarantee that elected officials will be accountable to the people,” she said.

She believes lessening the influence of money in politics would make it easier for people to run for office. Common Cause Delaware has advocated for creating a system where smaller political contributions would be matched by public funds.

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