Not all politicians are the same — just look at Delaware's U.S. Senate race

Karl Baker
Delaware News Journal

A quietly contentious campaign for one of Delaware's two U.S. Senate seats, currently held by Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat, will present voters with distinct choices during a primary next week that may shape the state's biggest parties for years.

The choice promises to be even starker as the congressional campaign moves forward to the general election in November – and likely new spending pushes it out of the media shadow currently cast by protests, presidential politics and the pandemic.

There is a nationalist Republican who calls herself pro-union and wants a moratorium on immigration into the United States. Her opponent is a more traditional, party-endorsed conservative, who wants legal immigration with the possibility of quotas set by the country of origin.

He also believes in an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory about the coronavirus being a biological weapon. 

The two competing Democratic candidates represent one of many contests nationally between political moderates and progressives that prominently feature a debate over how best to fund the country's health care system. 

Coincidentally, each Democrat points to the narrow passage of Obamacare a decade ago – and Republicans' rigid opposition to it – as evidence that their approach is the right way to govern.

VOTER'S GUIDE:Log onto delawareonline.com and see your personal ballot and candidates

The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

In many ways, Delaware's Senate primary highlights identity crises facing the country's big political parties following years of societal tensions. 

Next week's winners will likely be seen as bellwethers for what Delaware Democrats and Republicans may look like in the future – whether they follow rightward shifts that have occurred in pro-union Midwestern states or leftward ones seen in the suburbs of the Northeast and the West Coast.

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Independent Party's Mark Turley and Libertarian Nadine Frost also are running for the seat, though neither faces a primary next week. 

The Democrats 

The question for many Democrats today is whether to embrace the center-left policies of the Obama years, which often were designed to snag a few Republican supporters, or to follow the platform presented by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and others, with calls for "Medicare for All" and stricter environmental and banking regulations.   

Jessica Scarane, a digital marketing professional, prefers the latter. She says Congress needs to address what she calls working people's demands for progressive changes, such as an expansion of Medicare to people of all ages.

Among a new wave of liberal millennials running for Congress, Scarane argues Delaware is a solidly Democratic state yet its leaders won't govern that way. Among various issues, she points to Coons' rejection of Medicare for All and to his work negotiating a paycheck protection program, which sent billions of dollars through private banks to businesses struggling amid the economic downturn. 

She said Coons' legislative style of working with centrist Republicans in Washington amounts to an "appeasement" that hurts working people and favors "corporate interests" that support him.

"What we hear most from voters is that they want someone who’s going to fight for them, not just going to sell them out under the guise of getting things done," she said.  

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Sen. Chris Coons speaks during a gathering with protesters Sunday, May 31, 2020, outside of the Louis L. Redding City/Council Building in Wilmington.

Coons, a savvy incumbent broadly supported by Delaware's political establishment, knows those criticisms well. He is quick to call himself a "Biden progressive" and point to bills he has sponsored, such as one that would impose a "carbon tax," that demonstrates how working with Republicans can further a liberal cause.   

He said he opposes Medicare for All because it would necessitate a radical transformation of the economy and create an unsustainable backlash from the right.  

Instead, he says he supports a "public option" for health insurance, which would allow people to buy into Medicare, if they chose to, as a buttress to the current framework under the Affordable Care Act.

"What I know is when we tried to get the Affordable Care Act into law and then actually fund it, it produced a backlash that nearly killed the thing,” he said. "Given how popular the ACA is today, it should be kept and beefed up with a public Medicare option."

Scarane also points to Obamacare as a cautionary tale, but draws an opposite conclusion. She notes the law was a result of a compromise with the center right, but it still failed to garner any significant Republican support.  

U.S. Senate candidate Jessica Scarane briefly speaks to a group of about 50 gathered to protest against mass incarceration of Black people in Wilmington on Friday, July 17, 2020.

Her campaign comes two years after progressive Kerri Evelyn Harris challenged Sen. Tom Carper for his seat in the Senate. The race drew considerable excitement from liberals in Delaware and across the country, but Carper, who has represented Delaware for decades, ultimately won by 30 percentage points. 

Pressed on how she plans to shift Delaware's political winds, Scarane said the state's history of voting for moderate Democrats is a result of relatively low turnout in primaries and an electorate that is wary of "breaking free from the safety of a known commodity." 

She and her team of more than 1,000 volunteers have made "hundreds of thousands of calls" to voters, Scarane said. Before the pandemic struck Delaware, they had knocked on the doors of about 25,000 homes in Delaware, she said.

Coons said he also had a door-knocking operation before the pandemic.

He also has a massive fundraising edge over all of his challengers both from direct contributions and from support from outside industry and union groups. 

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The Republicans 

The Republican Party's legacy of opposing unions and pushing for an active military abroad has been questioned by candidates like Lauren Witzke, who speaks frequently of what she calls the country's need to boost "American families." 

He policy centerpiece is a 10-year moratorium on immigration, a would-be unprecedented change that would drastically alter the country's economy.

The political newcomer, who said she has suffered from addiction and once worked for an illegal drug cartel, has actively brought a nativist message to events throughout the state, from farmhouses downstate to protests in Wilmington.

Like President Donald Trump, whom she supports, Witzke is active on Twitter. On Saturday, Coons tweeted a message supporting immigrants who have been granted legal residency under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, or DACA. 

In response, Witze tweeted: "Wrong. We owe illegal aliens nothing. They have to go back."

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Lauren Witzke, a Republican, hopes to unseat Democrat Chris Coons for U.S. Senate.

Her website calls for an end to DACA, before stating "Lauren believes that our ancestors did not merely migrate to America, rather they founded America." 

Such statements have drawn criticism for using language often associated with white nationalists.

On Twitter, she "likes" comments that frequently strike a conspiratorial tone and has posted tweets with the hashtag #WWG1WGA (Where We Go One We Go All), which is used by supporters of an unfounded conspiracy theory. 

In a Tweet, posted Sept. 1, Witzke decried a drop in birthrates in the United States while posting an article about a rise in births in Hungary. A commenter, posting in response to her tweet, said it is “obvious their preferred 'solution' is just to replace us with foreigners." 

Witzke "liked" the comment.

While Witzke calls for a 10-year immigration moratorium, she also liked a Twitter post from a user who in April said "how about a permanent ban on all 3rd world immigration? Demography is destiny." 

Witzke declined to answer emailed questions for this story, including inquiries about where people whose ethnic backgrounds outside of Europe fit into her vision for the country.

In a statement she said, "My top priority as Delaware's next U.S. senator will be to put hard-working American families first, including Union members who are now realizing that Democrats, especially Chris Coons, have left the American worker behind in favor of their insane identity politics and far-left social justice agenda."

Her Republican opponent is attorney James DeMartino, a more traditional conservative who lives in Lewes. Asked why voters should choose him, Demartino points to his experience from a long career, first in the military, then in the private defense industry and finally as an attorney. 

In 2018, he ran an unsuccessful campaign to unseat state House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, in Sussex County's lone blue legislative district. 

"I had been in the military, an intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps for over 15 years," he said. "My opponent, I do not recall her identifying any (career), definitely not a current job and I believe the only experience she has is in the pharmaceutical or drug industry." 

Witzke has said she worked in the past at a Wilmington pharmaceutical company before becoming addicted to opioids, working for a drug cartel, then ultimately moving on to recovery.

James DeMartino is a Republican running for the state House of Representatives, District 14.

When pressed about preferred policies, DeMartino speaks in grand political proclamations about the Constitution and about a need to lower prescription drug prices. Like Witzke, he said he supports the president. 

"We need to restore law and order. We need to endorse the Constitution as written," he said. "From my perspective, I will support conservative judges."  

He also suggested limiting immigration based on a quota system for countries of origin. He said the point of emphasis for U.S. immigration policies should be on skills possessed by potential newcomers.

On health care, DeMartino stated categorically that he opposes Medicare for All.

Instead, he said the health insurance industry should be privately run and operated across state lines and that individuals should not be mandated to purchase insurance, a key part of Obamacare. Asked if he wishes to dismantle all of Obamacare, he said, "The whole thing has to be reviewed and analyzed."   

"The one thing I won't do is receive money from pharmaceutical companies," he said, in a reference to Coons. 

Like Witzke, DeMartino has directed much scorn toward Coons. They each separately stated that Delaware voters are tired of progressive politics and scoff at Coons' stated moderate agenda.

Earlier this summer, DeMartino received the endorsement from the Delaware Republican Party. 

After the endorsement, Witzke attacked DeMartino calling him "a totally unknown, George Bush-era empty suit loser," in an emailed statement to Delaware Online/The News Journal.

Where DeMartino diverges from the establishment is with his belief in an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that the coronavirus is a biological attack China first unleashed on itself.  

Asked for evidence to the claim, he said, "Look at the facts and rationalize it for yourself," noting that it first was identified in China's Wuhan province. 

Contact Karl Baker at kbaker@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2329. Follow him on Twitter @kbaker6.