Postmortem of special election (Whipple)

Delaware last went for the Republican presidential candidate in 1988, and all three of its members of Congress have been Democrats since 2010. The last Republican governor left office in 1993. Democrats have controlled the lower house of the General Assembly since 2009 and the state Senate since 1973.

But there was a glimmer of hope for Republicans when they picked up a state Senate seat in the 2016 elections and Senator Bethany Hall Long was elected lieutenant governor. After Hall Long gave up her Senate seat, they could achieve an 11-10 majority by winning the special election to fill the vacancy. As the News Journal put it, the special election figured to be “one of the biggest Delaware political showdowns in years.”

Comprised of Middletown, Glasgow and southern Newark, the 10th Senate District had a total of 35,673 voters (16,165 Democrats, 10,113 Republicans, 9,395 others). Despite a big registration deficit, Republicans could win through a combination of high voter turnout and attracting a disproportionate share of independent voters.

John Marino, a retired New York City police office and now a real estate agent, had come close in two previous elections, e.g., he fell only 267 votes short of unseating Bethany Hall Long in the 2014 Senate race. And turnout in special elections is typically light, which appeared to enhance his chances in the current race.

The Democratic candidate, environmental lawyer Stephanie Hansen, stated that she wasn’t taking victory for granted and would fight for every available vote. As though to make her seem like an underdog, Democrats were reportedly envisioning the election as a challenge to the presidency of Donald Trump.

On February 1, the two major party candidates plus Libertarian Joseph Lanzendorfer participated in a debate at Middletown High School. The audience (roughly 500 people) appeared to be about equally split between Hansen and Marino supporters.

Moderator Alan Loudell (of WDEL) asked the three candidates some 15 questions, on subjects ranging from abortion and legalization of marijuana to right to work laws, and then invited them to make brief closing statements. Given an overall time of one hour, this approach ensured none of the issues would be discussed in much depth.

The News Journal’s report on Feb. 2 highlighted three issues, two largely theoretical (no policy changes were likely from the General Assembly) and a third on which the candidates supposedly agreed: (1)
Abortion: Marino was booed for saying he was staunchly pro-life, Hansen took some heat for saying abortion was a terrible thing albeit insisting it was no one’s business except “a woman and her physician.” (2) Right to work: Marino said state needed to bring jobs back and RTW was not anti-union. Hansen said the label should be “right to work for less,” and RTW was so aimed at unions. (3) Budget: “All three candidates identified themselves as ‘fiscal conservatives’ and said now is not the time to raise taxes.”

There was no mention in the News Journal story of an exchange on whether a Republican takeover of the state Senate would be beneficial. Marino argued that Democrats had controlled the Senate for 44 years, things weren’t going well under one-party rule, and Republican control of the Senate could foster better solutions. Hansen said the status quo in Delaware was just fine. After all, Republicans controlled the state legislatures in many other states plus both houses of Congress and the White House. Also, Democrats in Delaware habitually worked across the aisle, not caring where the good ideas came from, while Republicans had chosen to delay the confirmation of one of Governor John Carney’s appointments (Shawn Garvin to head DNREC). Lanzendorfer suggested that a Democrat/Republican balance in the Senate, with him wielding the tie breaker vote, would keep everyone honest.

There were no more debates. The remainder of the campaign was about knocking on doors, making calls, sending out flyers, etc. Hansen was supported at political rallies by, among others, former Vice President Joe Biden, DE Governor John Carney, and former MD Governor Martin O’Malley. Marino was supported by Republican Party State Chairman Charlie Copeland and DE Senator Greg Lavelle; Judge Jeanine Pirro gave him a plug at the Kent County Lincoln Day dinner.

Most of the News Journal coverage focused on campaign spending. Including PACs, Hansen’s campaign reportedly raised and spent about $750K versus some $150-200K for the Marino campaign. What all the Hansen spending went for wasn’t entirely clear, except her campaign ran some TV ads (both sides had Internet ads). In terms of campaign flyers, signage, and neighborhood canvassing the Marino campaign seemed (at least in the Middletown area) fully competitive.

About 35% of the registered voters turned out on February 25, beating initial expectations. Hansen was the winner, with 58% of the votes cast; Marino got 41% of the votes and Lanzendorfer the remainder. For better or worse, one-party rule would continue in Delaware for a while longer.

“This was the first swing election in the country since the inauguration,” gushed Hansen in her victory speech. “It was the first chance for voters to rise up with one voice to say we’re bigger than the bullies. It was the first chance for voters to declare with one loud voice that we’re better than the politics of fear and division. What we accomplished together will have implications for our entire state and country, and I think tonight they’re hearing us loud and clear in all corners of this country – and certainly in DC and in Dover.”

State Republican leaders lauded a grassroots campaign directed at making the state better and groused about Democratic fundraising tactics. A letter writer from the Middletown area slammed party leaders for what he saw as a half-hearted effort to support a candidate “who outworked his opponent and had a clear message on how to improve the lives of citizens in the 10th District and all Delawareans.”

Although Delaware isn’t likely to be turned red any time soon, it would be nice to see the state Republicans get their act together. Maybe they could start by rethinking the First State’s “renewable energy” policies, proposing school district consolidations to reduce administrative costs, and offering specific ideas for addressing a developing fiscal shortfall. As the special election outcome shows, relying on voter turnout to beat the party in power isn’t necessarily a winning strategy.

Kudos to John Marino and his supporters for a yeoman effort, and better luck next time!
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