Do Delaware progressive candidates have a shot in 2020 after coronavirus hurt campaigning?

Sarah Gamard Lindsay Weber
Delaware News Journal

At the start of this year, the 2020 elections were shaping up to be full of challengers who were set to give incumbents a run for their money.

A crowd of political outsiders, largely in New Castle County, this year are taking on established lawmakers in Delaware's 62-member General Assembly, where more than three-quarters of seats are on the ballot in November. Many of them joined when national progressive candidates such as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., were in the height of their bids for office.

There's eight Statehouse races and three statewide races this year where a Democratic incumbent is facing at least one challenger from the same party — something that party members say is part of a growing trend where Delaware incumbents, many of whom don't have term limits, increasingly have to fight for their seat every two to four years. Many of those challengers say they are more progressive than the incumbents.

The wave isn't just challenging Delaware's political status quo, but potentially its laws. If voters replaced a few moderate lawmakers with their left-leaning counterparts, that could be enough to tip the scales on controversial bills such as a $15 minimum wage, stricter gun laws and legalization of recreational marijuana.

Meanwhile, centrist Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Coons is also facing a primary from Jessica Scarane, a progressive millennial whose underdog campaign is reminiscent of Kerri Evelyn Harris' unsuccessful 2018 bid against fellow Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Carper.

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At the start of this year, these challengers were already knocking on doors, calling out longtime lawmakers for their voting records and banking on voters tiring of the Democratic Party's moderate wing strategies.

Progressive candidate Eric Morrison, who is challenging Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, says he has been able to safely resume door-knocking while social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

But then the coronavirus came to Delaware, and the Democratic Party told its candidates to hold off on traditional campaign methods due to social distancing measures. Progressives were already facing an uphill battle, and the pandemic made it much harder to garner votes in person. While candidates have gotten the green light again to door-knock, many have decided to play it safe and keep canvassing from home.

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“The most effective way to reach a voter is to have a face-to-face conversation with them," said Marie Pinkney, 30, who is challenging four-decade incumbent Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk's Nest. "Not having that face-to-face is not our favorite."

Incumbents are facing the same problem. Longtime lawmakers like McBride are facing a primary challenger for the first time in more than a decade and are ramping up voter outreach for the first time in a long time — while wearing a face cover and staying 6 feet away.

Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-New Castle, speaks on the Delaware Senate floor on Jan. 15, 2020.

McBride, who hasn't had a primary opponent since 1986, said the pandemic has "crimped the style of what I would normally do." Instead of going door to door, he says he's putting up lawn signs and driving around his district.

McBride called the movement of challengers "a new phenomenon" and "a good thing" because the campaigns are bringing more people into the political process.

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It was a blow for the progressive movement when Sanders, a democratic socialist and leader of the progressive movement, suspended his campaign for president in April. But since then, health care reform, higher wages and police reform have all come to the forefront as the virus wreaks havoc on Americans’ health and the economy.

Thousands of Delawareans have also taken to the streets to protest racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and local movement organizers have lamented lawmakers' response thus far as subpar.

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.

Candidates challenging incumbents said they've heard increased urgency from voters for sweeping policy changes after the pandemic revealed shortcomings in health care, education and employment — something these candidates hope will work in their favor on Election Day.

"I don’t think that people have changed their opinion," said Madinah Wilson-Anton, 26, one of two Democrats running against incumbent Rep. John Viola, D-Newark. "They’re just a little bit more upset, I think, at the lack of progress beforehand that could have made this situation a lot less chaotic."

Madinah Wilson-Anton is a  Democratic candidate in Delaware House District 26, which covers parts of Southern Newark and Bear.

Other progressives agree.

"People were already insecure in their housing. People were already unable to get the health care that they needed. People were already in jobs that were unstable," Scarane said. "This pandemic has acted as an accelerant and exaggerated all these problems even further."

But could it be enough to get Delawareans to vote for these candidates and unseat long-standing incumbents?

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If you ask the state party itself, the answer is: probably not.

“If I were to give an overall view here, I think it probably has harmed challengers more than it’s helped them," said Dave Woodside, New Castle County chairman of the Delaware Democratic Party, referring to the pandemic's toll on campaigning. "But there will be places where those challengers are able to sort of outsmart their incumbent."

In Democratic-held Delaware, primary races are often the real contest. Many Democratic challengers and incumbents, especially in New Castle County, will face their biggest hurdle on the Sept. 15 primary, because whoever wins that election is expected to win the general regardless of whether they face a Republican. Democrats make up 54% of voters in New Castle County and 48% of the statewide voter population.

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

Incumbent lawmakers have lost a chunk of their reelection strategy — their recent voting record — simply because they've been forced away from what they were elected to do. After the state's 2020 legislative session was truncated by the pandemic, lawmakers lost two months of work before moving to voting from home via Zoom video conferences. Woodside said the dent in this year's schedule will "rob them of one of their tools in their tool-belt," but it's not clear if it will hurt that.

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That's because incumbents have, at the same time, shifted their roles as liaisons between constituents and Gov. John Carney's administration as the state rolls out new rules and services amid the pandemic. Many Delawareans, desperate for help and answers, have turned to their lawmakers for help with things such as unemployment benefits, coronavirus testing and food banks.

It's not clear yet whether voters on Election Day will remember that help or whether they'll want more drastic changes promised by challengers.

"I don’t think any of us know what’s going to work," Woodside said about either side's campaigns. "We’ll know a lot more in the middle of September."

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.

Paul Brewer, research director at the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication, also said it's unclear now how the elections will play out.

"I don’t think there’s clear signs that progressive challengers are going to do better or worse this time around," Brewer said. "I think it’s going to be more of a case by case, (such as) when there’s an incumbent who’s out of sync with their district or who has some kind of problems, they’re in a scandal, say, or they’re just vulnerable because they haven’t been as present in their district."

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High-profile progressive challengers have made national headlines for usurping longtime Democratic incumbents, such as U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., did when defeating established Democrat Joseph Crowley in 2018.

Other progressives have followed suit and succeeded in defeating longtime, established Democratic incumbents. In July, political newcomer Jamaal Bowman ousted Rep. Eliot Engel in New York's primary. Just this month, Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush defeated Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. in Missouri's primary.

But more often than not, the incumbent prevails thanks to name recognition and resources, Brewer said. Sen. Carper, for example, won Delaware's 2018 primary with nearly 65% of the vote despite progressive challenger Harris' perceived star power in that race.

U.S. Sen Tom Carper debates progressive Democratic challenger Kerri Evelyn Harris in the 2018 midterm race.

Scarane, who said she was inspired by Harris, said she hopes the influx of newcomers will test what she sees as a culture of silence where established political figures don't speak out against each other.

"There are a lot of people who will support quietly, but are fearful about supporting publicly because they fear retaliation," Scarane said. "I think that's a culture we really need to be working to change in this state, and having more of these primaries will start to change that."

But there's another dynamic at play nationally, including in the presidential race, where moderates are taking on progressive ideas.

The Democratic Party's nominee, Joe Biden, has spent much of his campaign working with a former rival, Sanders, on issues such as environmental protection and racial equality in an attempt to unify progressives and moderates within the party. The task force's recommendations have helped shape Biden's "Build Back Better" plan to restore millions of jobs lost during the coronavirus pandemic and grow the economy.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at McGregor Industries in Dunmore, Pa., Thursday, July 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Biden's platform amid an increasingly left-leaning Democratic electorate is arguably more progressive than Hillary Clinton's 2016 platform and Obama's 2008 platform, and could trickle down to other Delaware Democrats like Coons and other moderate state office incumbents, Brewer said.

“Because the pandemic has really sort of mixed up politics and changed the conversation about it … even the establishment moderate types might be willing to take on some of the things that the progressives have been arguing for," Brewer said. "Some of these progressive candidates, even if they lose, they might still be winning some of what they want."

How to vote

The 2020 state primary, in which only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote, will be the second time this year that voters will be able to vote from home if they don't want to risk the spread of the coronavirus at the polls.

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ARE YOU REGISTERED TO VOTE?: Check your voting status here

Vote-by-mail applications were sent to qualifying voters in July. The state plans on keeping all of its polling places open for those who are comfortable voting in person.

The deadline to switch parties for the state primary has passed. ​​

  • Aug. 22 — Deadline to register to vote before the primary election
  • Sept. 15 — State primary election
  • Oct. 10 — Deadline to register to vote before the general election
  • Nov. 3 — General Election Day

Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.