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EDITORIAL: What is the future for Delaware Republicans?

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For supporters of the Republican Party, or even fans of divided government, the 2022 midterm elections were a pretty sour occasion in Delaware.

For the fourth straight election cycle, Democrats ran away with every statewide race on the ballot and have steadily added to their supermajority in the state legislature. In New Castle County, the state’s most populous and economically important county, most Democrats aren’t even challenged by Republicans anymore, with four of six council races this year unopposed and a fifth Democrat easily defeating her opponent.

Jacob Owens
Delaware Business Times

These days, it does not get much bluer than Delaware.

A Republican hasn’t been elected here statewide since Ken Simpler won state treasurer in 2014 and it’s been 34 years since Delaware voted for a Republican presidential or gubernatorial candidate. It’s been 14 years since the GOP had control of the state House of Representatives and 40 years since it controlled the state Senate.

There’s a variety of reasons why Delaware has become a haven for Democrats, ranging from its bedroom-community status for Democratic cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore and D.C.; its large minority population; and its precedent for liberal social movements, which in turn drives more attraction for liberals.

An emerging demographic trend may be throwing the GOP a lifeline in Delaware though, as a huge migration of new residents are arriving in Sussex County. They are primarily retirees seeking a beach lifestyle in the favorable tax environment of Delaware, leaving higher-taxed abodes in places like New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual estimates, Delaware broke the 1 million resident barrier for the first time in 2021, largely on the backs of these new arrivals. While the First State has seen a steady annual population growth of about 1% over the past decade, those age 65 and older are the fastest growing subset of that total, increasing 55% since 2010. Conversely, the biggest demographic drop in the state is among those ages 35 to 49 at more than 4%.

It means that fewer of our residents are mid-life parents and more of them are retirees – a demographic historically favorable to the Republican Party. Whether that trend will change Delaware’s electoral map remains to be seen as many of the arrivals are leaving similar Democratic havens – are they Republicans leaving Democrat districts or blue voters arriving here and further diluting recent Republican bastions below the C&D Canal? Some state data sheds some light there.

In the eight years from 2012 to 2020, Republican registrations in Sussex County increased 57% for those over 65, while Democratic registrations increased 42%. The GOP has moved from the minority party in Sussex in 2012 to the majority party, holding a more than 8,800-voter advantage in the growing southern county as of this month.

That isn’t to say that Democrats are ceding ground statewide anytime soon though – the Dems have nearly 1.5 registered voters for every registered Republican. Which is why the GOP has to take a hard look at its platform and candidates before it heads into 2024. It cannot, and will not, win races in Delaware anymore without garnering independent or cross-party support.

Recent statewide campaigns in Delaware have run a mix of far-right candidates and more centrist ones – this year’s slate was perhaps its strongest in several cycles – but public messaging has largely centered on trying to pin Delaware Democrats to national issues. It hasn’t been a successful tactic, with double-digit margins in many losses.

Jane Brady, chair of the Delaware Republican Party, told me the party did everything they could to make more in-roads with voters, and noted that no incumbent Republican lost statewide. The party had hundreds of volunteers making Election Day reminder phone calls, published a party newspaper to push platforms and has made early contact with new arrivals in Sussex County and elsewhere.

Former Republican Gov. Mike Castle, who won numerous statewide Congressional House races while Democrats controlled Dover, told me he thought Republicans put together a good slate of candidates, but they couldn’t pin local Democrats to the national issues, especially when the president remains popular here. He also said that the flipping of New Castle County from Republican majority in his heyday to Democratic today presents a big challenge for his party.

“I think Republicans have to do all they can to make sure they’re appealing to those people who are either not registered as Republicans or are just independent,” he said.

For Republicans to have not fared well this year on the back of historic inflation, a looming recession and a lingering war in Ukraine, it tells me they weren’t focused on the right message. A laser focus on a “kitchen table issues” platform, much like Ronald Reagan rode to victory in similar circumstances in 1980, is something I think Delawareans, and Americans, would have connected with.

While many of the Republican candidates surely do care about such issues and made it a part of their platform, the messaging we heard in advertising campaigns here cared more about “Crazy Nancy Pelosi” than pocketbooks.

Republicans like Castle and Simpler won statewide after connecting with locals, earning cross-party respect and focusing on those core family concerns even while Democrats won races at the top of the ballot. I look around the map and see several Republicans like that today, including House Reps. Mike Smith, Michael Ramone and Kevin Hensley, who have won races in Democratic majority areas.

There’s two years before one of the biggest elections of our lifetimes, and if the Republican Party wants to re-establish a foothold in Delaware, it’s time to harken back to that Reaganesque focus.

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