GEORGETOWN, Del. — This week's midterm elections spawned bitter rancor across the nation, as Republican President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats continue sniping at each other in Washington and candidates from Georgia to Arizona are now fighting in court over races that were to be settled Tuesday.
But on Thursday in the tiny southern Delaware hamlet of Georgetown, the electoral winners and losers shook hands and embraced one another in a show of goodwill known as Return Day, with nary a frown on any face.
It's a time-honored, post-campaign ritual to settle their partisan differences, at least for the moment, a temporary healing that participants say might offer a useful example for the entire country.
On Return Day, Sussex County residents traditionally "return" to their county seat to hear local election results, as they first did more than 200 years ago.
Over the decades, Return Day has become an opportunity for reconciliation and reflection. Winners and losers from up and down the state ride together in horse-drawn carriages and local party leaders join hands and symbolically "bury the hatchet" in a box of sand, a show of nonpartisan goodwill before politicians return to their respective corners to prepare for the next political battle.
"I think the whole country could use a Return Day," said U.S. Senate Tom Carper, a vocal Trump critic. He won a fourth term Tuesday by defeating Sussex County councilman Rob Arlett, who served as Trump's state campaign chair in 2016.
"What we need is enlightened leadership, compassionate leadership, leaders who believe in the Golden Rule, treat other people the way we want to be treated," said Carper, who walked the Return Day parade route with his, wife, Martha, with a smiling Arlett close behind.
Tuxedoed town crier Kirk Lawson read the election results from the balcony of the county courthouse, declaring that Arlett actually earned more votes than Carper, and Republican Scott Walker outpolled Democratic U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester. That's because he was only reading results for Sussex County, a Republican stronghold in a deeply blue state.
On Return Day, balloting in Delaware's two other counties is ignored.
"Why only Sussex? Because down here, that's all that matters," Lawson explained to newcomers in the crowd.
But more than anything, Return Day is about having a good time.
Thousands of flag-waving spectators line the streets, setting up lawn chairs in prime viewing spots, to view a parade featuring politicians, carriages, marching bands and plenty of antique vehicles. Souvenir stands ring Georgetown's central roundabout, while food vendors hawk everything from funnel cakes and barbecue sandwiches to scrapple, a fried concoction of cornmeal and pig parts usually not discussed in polite company.
Meanwhile, beer flows at private parties, lobbyists take the opportunity to chat up new and veteran lawmakers and political insiders speculate who might be on the ballot two years from now. The party ends with the distribution of free "ox roast" sandwiches — chunks of pit-roasted beef slapped between two pieces of white bread.
Denise Mark of Ringwood, New Jersey, made the 4½ hour trek with her 14-year-old son, Luke, to take part in Thursday's festivities. Family members who live in Sussex County introduced them to the tradition two years ago, and Luke, wearing a red "Make America Great Again," hat, wanted to come back, she explained.
"It's good that they bury the hatchet, because today with everything that's going on in the world, that's what we really need to do," Mark said. "We need to put all the difference aside, and all the people need to come together and start over."