By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The political types have been madly filling out their brackets, legislative style, as they try to divine in March who will win state Senate races.

As of this week, there is a new intensity to all their figuring. This is a very small state. One person can remake it with a personal decision, and someone just did.

So what in the name of Elena Delle Donne happened? All it took was for George Howard Bunting, a Democratic state senator known for being quiet and a little quirky, to spring on his colleagues his decision to take himself out of politics after 30 years by forgoing re-election to his seat in the southeastern corner of Sussex County.

“It’s the natural rhythm of life,” Bunting said.

It is also the natural rhythm of politics for Sussex legislative districts to go Republican once longtime Democrats give them up, and this is what has Delaware politics in a tizzy. The state Senate has been a Democratic fortress for nearly 40 years, but the Republicans are ready to make a charge, starting with the 2012 election.

Bunting was in line for a bye if he ran again, but his departure shakes things up. Talk about Republican eyes smiling on the verge of St. Patrick’s Day, the other March pastime that can make people act silly.

The Republicans have been counting the elections until Bunting decided to leave, because they are quite certain they have a senator-in-waiting with Gerald Hocker, who has been in the state House of Representatives since 2002.

Hocker, observing what niceties there are in politics, says he is thinking about it. Actually, he has been thinking about it a little longer than most. Bunting did not clue in his fellow Democratic senators before his announcement, but he did let Hocker know. Wink-wink-nod-nod.

“I gave the man my word I wasn’t going to run against him, but I have been telling everyone that when he retires, I would like to seek his seat,” Hocker said. “I feel, being in the House for 10 years, I have earned it. Everybody has encouraged me to this point.”

Hocker could slip neatly into the “Row of No” — the desks in the back of the Senate for Colin Bonini, Joe Booth and Dave Lawson, Republican conservatives from downstate. With the Democrats running things, they hate nearly everything.

The Senate has 14 Democrats and seven Republicans. Redistricting and retirement have put four seats fiercely in play, but the field will not be entirely set until the candidates’ filing deadline in July.

The key races so far are: Michael Katz, a Democratic senator, and Greg Lavelle, the House Republican minority leader, in a Brandywine Hundred/Greenville district; Dave Sokola, a Democratic senator, and Liane Sorenson, the Senate Republican minority whip, combined in a Hockessin/Newark district; Andy Staton, a Democratic candidate, and the winner of a Republican primary between Ernie Lopez and Glen Urquhart in a Sussex County district; and Bunting’s seat.

Even if the Republicans were to win all of them, as is possible, the Democrats would still control the Senate by 11-10. It would leave the Republicans crossing their fingers for the eventual retirement of Bob Venables, a Sussex County Democratic senator who is 79.

The Democrats are clearly nervous. It has them looking at the New Castle/below-the-canal district where Dori Connor is the Republican senator, despite the Democrats’ 2-1 edge in registration. Except the Democrats lack a candidate, and unless they find one, this race is a forfeit.

So who do people like? Katz or Lavelle? Sokola or Sorenson? Do they see Hocker as a shoo-in?

The president may have filled out his March Madness basketball brackets with fanfare, but the governor took a pass on the political brackets.

“We’ll work as hard as we possibly can to keep electing great folks to the Senate,” said Jack Markell, the Democratic governor who is running for re-election himself.

Patti Blevins, the Senate Democratic majority leader, likes the chances for her side. “We’ll stay in the majority,” she said.

Ditto from Rhett Ruggerio, a lobbyist who used to be the Democratic national committeeman. “Every year we hear Republicans are going to take the Senate. I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

The Republicans are saying the momentum is with them.

“Up to 11,” said Sorenson, the minority whip.

“I like it. It’s got a lot of promise. At least 11,” said Gary Simpson, the Senate Republican minority leader who has visions of president pro tem dancing in his head.

For the Republicans to get to the majority, they could use a Cinderella candidate or two. Simpson and Sorenson say they have some ideas, but they are not telling.

If the Republicans get there? That “Row of No” suddenly turns into the “Row of Yes.”