If You Care About Medicare for All or a Green New Deal, Here’s the Senate Primary That Matters

Chris Coons, a devotee of bipartisanship, is being challenged by Jess Scarane, who was inspired by progressive Kerri Harris’s 2018 Senate campaign.

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 1: Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., is seen during a Senate Judiciary Committee markup of the Secure and Protect Act of 2019 on August 1, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Aug. 1, 2019. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

Chris Coons, a Democratic senator known for his intense dedication to bipartisanship, has drawn a primary challenger in Delaware. On Monday, Jess Scarane, a Wilmington digital strategist, announced her plan to challenge Coons, saying that she drew inspiration from the insurgent bid in 2018 by Kerri Harris against longtime incumbent Delaware Sen. Tom Carper. Harris fell short, winning 35 percent of the vote, but shattered the wait-your-turn political convention in Delaware and demonstrated that there is a base of support for primary challengers.

Coons first won election in 2010, to serve out the rest of Joe Biden’s term. It was considered a fluke. Republican Mike Castle — a two-term governor and the longest-serving U.S. representative in the state’s history — had been expected to win easily, but amid the rise of the tea party, the moderate Castle was upset in the primary by Christine O’Donnell, an eccentric candidate who spent the general election denying that she was a witch. O’Donnell’s win, followed by her loss in the general election, was cited by many Democratic would-be supporters of Harris in 2018 as a reason to maintain the state’s tradition of not rocking the incumbents’ boats. The convention is part of what’s known as “the Delaware Way.”

Though Coons is an obscure member of the Democratic caucus relative to somebody like the famously recalcitrant Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., Coons is no less a threat to the progressive agenda. He is an ardent supporter of the Senate tradition of bipartisan comity, and insists on only co-sponsoring legislation that is also backed by at least one Republican. His respect for bipartisanship is undiminished by the fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not reciprocated. After holding open a Supreme Court seat for a year in order to swipe it for his party, McConnell eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees and has been rubber-stamping a record-breaking number of judicial appointments. He used the process known as budget reconciliation, which gets around the legislative filibuster, to attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to pass the GOP’s tax cut.

Yet even as Republicans implement their agenda with a 50-vote threshold, Coons is committed to requiring 60 votes for any Democratic agenda item. Coons was easily reelected in 2014 and is popular throughout Delaware. But if he wins reelection a second time, it is virtually impossible to envision him supporting the enactment of Medicare for All using a 50-vote threshold, as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has pledged to attempt.

Coons recently made headlines by questioning whether racial, class, and gender diversity could be productively channeled in the Senate, a remark that Scarane said causes voters to rethink their support of him when they hear it.

“I want to believe of our country and ourselves that a more diverse Senate that includes women’s voices, and voices of people of color, and voices of people who were not professionals but, you know, who grew up working class and were the first in their family to go to school and so forth, that we can engage those voices and that they can be part of the debate, and that that doesn’t produce irreconcilable discord. I think history may judge otherwise,” Coons said. His office later said that Coons is a strong supporter of diversity, but the comments were clear on their own.

“It definitely makes people stop and think and really question why he would believe that,” Scarane said. “I do believe it is sort of indicative of the culture of the Senate we have right now, and why the Senate can be a barrier to the progress we need for our country. I think the fact that the Senate doesn’t actually reflect much of the country is part of the reason why it is a barrier.”

Scarane said she’ll be running on a broadly progressive platform, focused on addressing the climate emergency with a Green New Deal, implementing Medicare for All, and dramatically expanding funding for education. She’s also open to ending the filibuster — an effort that Coons has vowed to block.

In the race, Scarane plans to zero in on Coons’s vote to confirm pharmaceutical representative Alex Azar as Health and Human Services Secretary. She said she was particularly incensed when she learned that Coons had vouched for him as somebody he’d known since their time at Yale together. His negotiations with former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to win an investigation into assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, will also be part of her campaign, said Scarane, describing the weeklong investigation as a mere “fig leaf that gave cover to what Republicans were going to do anyway.”

In 2018, Coons chastised Harris for running against Carper, arguing that it is the culture of Delaware politics to work one’s way up through the party machinery. Scarane, like Harris, has never run for elected office before.

She was raised in New York but married a Delaware native and has lived there for the last 10 years. In a state that prides roots and relationships, her lack of native Delawarean status is likely to hurt. But Harris, who was also not born in Delaware, showed that a well-organized progressive challenge, even on a shoe-string budget, can pull some 35 percent of the vote in a primary, a number that surprised some longtime Delaware observers.

Scarane is the board president of a local nonprofit, Girls Inc. of Delaware, which works with Wilmington girls and has also been active with West End Neighborhood House. In a state dominated by large corporations, Scarane is refusing fossil fuel money, as well as donations from corporate political action committees.

The question for Scarane, given that she has much more time to campaign than Harris did, is whether she can use that time to add another 15 percentage points to Harris’s total. A digital marketer by trade, she’ll focus heavily on digital organizing to find supporters and volunteers to feed into a phone-banking, text, and door-to-door operation. The primary isn’t until September, giving Scarane nearly a year to campaign.

She said that Harris’s run had built lasting progressive infrastructure that she hoped to take advantage of, and volunteers from Harris’s campaign were already eager to help with hers. Harris officially announced her bid in February 2018 but wasn’t able to begin seriously campaigning until the summer. The June 26, 2018, upset by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who traveled to Delaware to campaign for Harris (and vice versa), brought new attention to Harris’s longshot run and helped her get the support of Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party, who invested heavily in her race.

“I can’t emphasize enough how groundbreaking that was,” Scarane said of the Harris campaign, which broke all the rules of Delaware politics. It’s unclear whether either group will back Scarane this time, but unseating Coons is a high priority for progressives, who see him as a chief obstacle to reform, and an unnecessary one, given that he hails from a blue state.

Harris now works for Working Hero Action and Medicare for All NOW. She told The Intercept she hasn’t spoken to Scarane yet, but is excited about her run and would back her if they align on issues.

Coons, at the same event where he worried about the fate of a diverse Senate, said he also worried that his party may be driven too far to the left. “I’m afraid my party is about to undertake the same kind of purity-driven exercise, whether in the presidential primaries or in the primaries our own incumbents face,” he said.

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