Young candidates look to help GOP win Delaware Senate

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DOVER — It’s been 44 years since the Republicans controlled the state Senate. In fact, several of the chamber’s current members weren’t even alive at the time.

But this year, Republicans think that ignominious streak of being in the minority can change. They hold nine seats and need 11 to control the 21-member chamber. Fortunately for them, the Nov. 8 election presents fairly favorable numbers.

Eleven seats will be on the ballot, five of which feature a candidate who is unchallenged. Of the remaining six, four are currently held by Democrats. If GOP hopefuls can win in two districts while the two incumbent Republicans facing opponents hold on to their seats, the chamber will flip.

The Democratic Party has held the governor’s office, the Senate and the House for the past eight years, meaning Republican victories in the Senate would give the GOP much greater power in governing the state.

‘New face’ of GOP

Some Republicans have expressed hope over what they see as the possible “new face” of the Delaware GOP. The party’s four challengers are all young, and in some ways they are more moderate than the average Republican.

In many ways, this election is about age. The four Democratic incumbents being challenged have all served in the General Assembly at least 26 years (126 years combined) and have an average age of 69.

The four Republicans? All millennials, they have a mean age of 32.

Millennials, generally defined as those born between approximately 1980 and 2000, tend to be less conservative, especially on social issues like gay marriage and marijuana legalization.

This year, James Spadola is challenging Harris McDowell in Senate District 1; Anthony Delcollo is taking on Patricia Blevins in Senate District 7; Meredith Chapman is hoping to unseat Dave Sokola in Senate District 8; and Carl Pace is aiming to beat Bruce Ennis in Senate District 14. Districts 1, 7 and 8 are in northern New Castle, while the 14th is spread between New Castle and Kent.

The state needs fresh ideas that don’t “come from crotchety old guys,” Delaware Republican Party Chairman Charlie Copeland said.

Although he was more reserved when discussing his party’s chances last week, Mr. Copeland spoke optimistically at the Republican National Convention in July, saying the Delaware GOP, “with a diverse slate of millennial candidates, will win control of its state Senate this year for the first time in 44 years.”

While control of the state House has flipped five times since 1972, the Senate has never gone to the Republicans in that timespan — even though, technically, the chamber had 11 Republicans when the Democrats first took over.

As told by longtime political reporter Celia Cohen in the book “Only in Delaware,” the Democratic minority colluded with two dissatisfied Republican senators to surprise the rest of the chamber on the first day of session in January 1973.

The lieutenant governor “noticed that all of the Democrats were wearing red carnations, as were (the two Republican senators who would flip), but none of the Republicans were,” Ms. Cohen writes.

The trap was then sprung, with two Republicans voting with the Democrats and shifting the GOP out of power.

According to the book, Mike Castle, then a Republican state senator who would go on to become governor and a U.S. representative, called it “an act of treachery.”

Change?

Since the 1996 election, Democrats never had fewer than 13 members in the Senate until this past session, when Bryant Richardson defeated longtime Sen. Robert Venables in 2014 to give the Republicans nine senators.

After the Senate peaked at 15 Democrats following the 2008 election, which saw a Democratic wave across the country, the GOP has made a comeback, gaining one seat in each of the past three elections.

This year, all four Republican challengers are running, in essence, for a common reason: They feel the state isn’t progressing and needs a change.

“I’m a lifelong resident in the state of Delaware and this is not the state I grew up in,” said Mr. Pace, 35.

“If you look at where we’re going and where we should be going, there’s a disconnect,” said Mr. Delcollo, 30.

Ms. Chapman, 31, questioned if Republican ideas were being considered in Dover and called for greater balance in the state government.

All four candidates believe the state needs to find solutions for job creation, the heroin epidemic and the education system that several described as struggling.

The 33-year-old Mr. Spadola in many ways breaks the mold of the traditional Republican. He has hosted events designed to curry favor with LGBT voters, for instance, and advocated for focusing less on social issues.

“I think we have an image problem right now. I think there’s a new sort of Republican, especially with my generation, that wants the government out of the bedroom, out of the bathroom and to focus on fighting crime, bringing in good jobs and improving education,” he said in a video posted to Facebook. “To me, that’s what the Republican Party should be about, not necessarily what we’re about right now.”

Friday, he elaborated, saying he hopes to offer a “fresh approach.”

That’s something Mr. Delcollo, Ms. Chapman and Mr. Pace are also focused on.

Each of the four described themselves as presenting innovative ideas, noting the contrast between them and their opponents. To the would-be senators, their lack of experience in elected office is all the more reason to vote them in.

“It’s not, to me, just about looking at what’s going on from the standpoint of which political party but really bringing new ideas and energy to Legislative Hall,” Ms. Chapman said.

Whether or new ideas are needed can be debated, but it is inarguable the four Democrats being challenged are legislative veterans.

Not the old guard

Sen. McDowell, first elected in 1976, has been in office longer than Mr. Spadola has been alive — something that doesn’t escape the Republican’s notice.

“We’re definitely not the old face,” Mr. Spadola said with a chuckle. “I guess in that sense we are the new face.”

All four districts have Democratic edges in terms of voter registration. The 1st District has nearly three times as many Democrats as Republicans, while the 7th gives Democrats a 2-to-1 edge and the 14th falls just short of that.

The 8th is much closer, with about 10,300 Democrats and 8,200 Republicans.

Despite the numerical disadvantage, the challengers are optimistic and said they have received good reception from voters.

Delawareans are more focused on “integrity and good ideas” than party affiliation, Mr. Delcollo said.

Mr. Spadola breaks with the party platform on issues like LGBT rights and the war on drugs, and Ms. Chapman described herself as a “Mike Castle moderate” — fitting, given she worked for him in Congress.

Mr. Pace said he does not support every Republican principle and has been reaching out to members of the Latino community.

Trump factor

The general frustration millions of Americans are feeling with their government could benefit the challengers, each of whom said they have encountered anti-establishment feelings from Delaware residents.

“If I was an incumbent, I would be concerned,” Mr. Pace said.

Nowhere is this frustration clearer than at the national stage, where Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump earned the party’s nomination largely based on his outsider candidacy and criticisms of incumbent politicians.

But while much of the GOP has lined up behind the controversial businessman, Mr. Spadola has not, although he was quick to add he is not backing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton either.

Mr. Delcollo avoided saying outright whether he plans to vote for Mr. Trump but said he disagrees with his style and does not “believe in anything that would approach bigotry or demeaning someone because of who they are.”

Ms. Chapman and Mr. Pace both declined to comment on the question of how they view Mr. Trump, saying they are focused on local issues.

The Millennial candidates would inject new blood in the Senate, which is both older and more experienced than the House. Fourteen of the Senate’s 21 members have served for more than 10 years, and 14 are at least 60 years old (the groups mostly overlap, although not entirely).

While the Republican Party is at least cautiously optimistic about its chances next month, it could get one more shot soon after the election. If Sen. Bethany Hall-Long, D-Middletown, wins her race for lieutenant governor, she would have to resign her 10th District seat, creating a special election.

For now, though, everyone is counting down the days until Nov. 8, when the state could see a shift in the balance of power.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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