Democrats Delight in Delaware Special Election

Nathan L. Gonzales March 6, 2017 · 9:15 AM EST

From the women’s marches to town hall protests, Democrats are starting to feel emboldened about their prospects in the midterms. A recent special election for the state Senate in Delaware only added to Democratic optimism, but the realities surrounding the race are more sobering.

Democrat Stephanie Hansen, a former New Castle County Council president, scored a 58 percent to 41 percent victory over Republican realtor John Marino last weekend. The win was described as “critical” by Daily Kos Elections, considering control of the Delaware state Senate was hanging in the balance. Democrats were specifically encouraged by a boost in turnout, particularly for a special election in February. 

The party has also been energized by the margin of victory. Marino came within 2 points (51 percent to 49 percent) of defeating the seat’s prior occupant, Bethany Hall-Long, in 2014. Hall-Long was elected lieutenant governor in November. Her subsequent resignation left the state Senate with 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans, putting control of the chamber at risk. 

Turnout for Saturday’s race was higher than it was during the regularly scheduled midterms in 2014, when 387 fewer votes were cast, according to the DKE analysis, which also noted that “the energy was heavily weighted toward the Democratic side,” considering Hansen received 7,314 votes compared to 6,230 for Hall-Long in 2014. Hansen also outperformed Hillary Clinton’s recent margin of victory in the district by 4 points.

“The voices in the streets turned into votes at the ballot box,” read a postelection piece by The Huffington Post. Delaware politics hasn’t received this much attention since Christine O’Donnell declared she wasn’t a witch.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee used its digital outreach program to recruit over 1,000 volunteers, including 500 volunteers on Election Day (many of whom came from outside the state) to support get-out-the-vote efforts, according to a postelection email from DLCC executive director Jessica Post. The volunteers knocked on nearly 90,000 doors and made over 60,000 phone calls to voters in the district.

GOP sources on the ground admit Democrats did a better job of taking advantage of new campaign finance laws regarding coordination and exploiting a 2010 law to mobilize 16- and 17-year-olds to vote. According to the law, kids can register and vote as long as they turn 18 by the next general election. 

Democratic efforts to hold the seat are unquestioned, but the idea that it was a “hotly contested” election is more subjective.

A study by Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics of 170 races in 2013 found Democrats performed an average of 12 points worse than Barack Obama did a year earlier. Democrats planned for a competitive race. But that’s not how this race played out.

Democrats effectively flooded the zone in a friendly district, while Republicans didn’t put up much of a fight. National Republicans appeared content letting Democrats control a state where redistricting is irrelevant because it has one at-large seat.

Republican sources estimate that Democrats spent a combined $1 million (outspending the GOP side by about 9-to-1) in the special election when a typical Delaware Senate race costs $100,000 or less. Hansen and the Democrats had enough money to air television ads in the expensive Philadelphia media market, while Marino relied on retail campaigning.

At the same approximate cost-per-vote of $137, it would take Democrats upwards of $16 million to oust GOP Rep. Patrick Meehan nearby in Pennsylvania’s 7th District, where approximately 235,000 people are likely to vote for Congress in a midterm election.

Democrats also pulled out the heavy hitters. Former Vice President and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden (a living icon in the state), current Sens. Thomas R. Carper and Chris Coons, the state’s governor, John Carney, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, all stumped for Hansen. Biden did television and radio ads for Hansen and went door-to-door.

The good news for Democrats is that demonizing President Donald Trump galvanized and mobilized Democratic voters. The bad news is that it was more fertile territory than the districts they’ll need to win to gain 24 seats for a House majority.

Democrats hold a 45 percent to 28 percent voter registration advantage in Delaware’s Senate District 10, which includes southern Newark and stretches south to Glasgow and down to Middletown.

Clinton received 54 percent of the district’s vote last year, according to Bloomberg’s Greg Giroux. But just three Republican incumbents represent congressional districts where the Democratic presidential nominee did as well or better. She received 55 percent in California’s 21st (represented by David Valadao), 57 percent in Florida’s 26th (represented by Carlos Curbelo), and 59 percent in Florida’s 27th (represented by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen).

Hansen came close to Obama’s 2012 performance (59 percent, per DKE), but House Republicans don’t hold a congressional district with a similar Obama performance.

And using Marino’s narrow loss in 2014 as a measuring stick is also complicated. Not only could that cycle have been Republicans’ high-water mark, but the Democratic incumbent’s husband was caught stealing Republican signs in the early morning hours just before Election Day and likely suppressed Hall-Long’s support.

It’s certainly possible that Democrats (with help from Trump) are on the verge of creating a tea party-like movement that helps the party surge in the midterm elections. But extrapolating special election results can be dangerous, particularly a race with a total electorate of less than 13,000 voters. And it’s unclear whether Democrats can maintain their fervor for 20 months.

The bottom line is that Democrats held a Democratic seat to hold a legislative chamber they’ve controlled for 44 years. And the biggest lesson out of this Delaware race appears to be that when Democrats dramatically outspend Republicans in Democratic districts, Democrats win.