And Democratic reinforcements are on the way. Delaware grew from 666,000 to 784,000 residents from 1990 to 2000, the fastest ratein either the Northeast or the Mid-Atlantic. When you head south of Wilmington on Route 1, the scenery in lower New Castle and Kent counties—cookie-cutter housing developments next to big puddles and tree stumps—looks familiar to anyone who's ever been to the outskirts of a city. But for Delawareans, this is runaway sprawl. Fifteen years ago, Route 1 didn't exist. The addition of this limited-access tollway means it's now possible to commute to Philadelphia and Baltimore from deep in the heart of Delaware. New residents come here from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey in search of the lowest housing prices in the region—you can get a new four-bedroom spread for less than $300,000.
The fastest-growing part of the state is conservative Sussex County. The housing boom started in the cosmopolitan beachfront communities, but astronomical property values have pushed pioneering homeowners inland. Dan Short, the Republican mayor of rural Seaford, told me that there are six or seven pending housing projects, some numbering in the thousands of new homes, for his town of 7,000. The new immigrants threaten to break the area's recent Republican monopoly.
Along with long-distance commuters, retirees are also pouring across the borders. One recent Kiplinger's study ranked Delaware as the most tax-friendly place to retire in America—a much better deal, and much closer to civilization, than second-place Alaska. Retired servicemen have settled near Dover Air Force Base; former seasonal vacationers in the beach community of Rehoboth are living in their condos full-time and moving into developments for those "55 or better." If you dodge the walkers, you might hit a rainbow flag. Steve Elkins, who runs the advocacy group CAMP Rehoboth, estimates that Rehoboth is now about 25 percent gay.
Delaware has become such a popular destination that it's not Delaware anymore. There are 60 percent more registered voters here in 2004 than there were in 1992. With all the exurbanites, old people, gays, and people from New Jersey, the state's long, proud history as an irrelevant bellwether is, well, irrelevant. If you want to figure out where the First State's headed now, ask the guy from Trenton who just moved in next door.