Update: September 15, 2020
Incumbent Sen. Chris Coons was declared an early winner on election night, likely to finish with more than 70 percent of the vote against his challenger Jess Scarane. But Scarane’s slate was headed for a rout of the establishment, with a potential statehouse sweep on the board. In the state Senate, Marie Pinkney held a two-point lead against Sen. David McBride, who was first elected to the seat back in 1980. The slate’s three state House races were also going well, with Larry Lambert Jr. up 18 points against incumbent Rep. Larry Seigfried; Eric Morrison up by more than 20 points against Rep. Earl Jacques Jr; and Madinah Wilson-Anton, who would be the first Muslim woman to serve in elected office in the state legislature, up slightly against incumbent Rep. John Viola.
The slate also ran two Wilmington city council candidates, and Shané Darby is poised to win her open race for the second district in a landslide. Her ally in the first district, Coby Owens, however, was trailing as the night was closing. Owens, a 25-year-old local activist who organized the city’s largest Black Lives Matter protest, faced an extraordinary amount of opposition from the party establishment. The mayor backed an independent expenditure that spent some $80,000 attacking him for supporting defunding the police, a staggering sum for an election whose winner will likely have fewer than 1,000 votes. He’s trailing by six percentage points.
Since at least the early 1800s, Delaware’s political establishment has been guided by an ethos known today as “the Delaware Way.” The state is small, and its inner circle of leaders tiny. Cooperation, including between the two parties, is the order of the day. Spoken and unspoken pacts have long greased transitions as politicians move from one elected office to another. The most famous maneuver is probably what’s known as “The Swap”: when the popular Republican governor, Mike Castle, switched places with the popular House member, Tom Carper, at the end of Castle’s tenure in 1992. Both glided into their new positions effectively unopposed.
When Joe Biden vacated his Senate seat for the White House in 2009, a similar arrangement played out. Biden’s longtime lieutenant, Ted Kaufman, was appointed to Biden’s seat for two years. Kaufman pledged not to run for reelection, opening the way for Castle to ease from the House over to the Senate in a 2010 race not expected to be competitive. Democrats put up only nominal opposition; a New Castle County executive, Chris Coons, was tapped to be the sacrificial lamb.
But Delaware’s Republican primary voters had other ideas and stunned the party by nominating eccentric tea party conservative Christine O’Donnell over Castle. O’Donnell’s general election campaign stumbled early, as she famously declared in a television ad that she was “not a witch.” (She was responding to surfaced video of an appearance of hers on Bill Maher’s HBO show, in which she had said she “dabbled into witchcraft.”) Things only got weirder from there, her polling numbers cratered, and Washington Republicans fumed at the blown opportunity. O’Donnell declined comment for this story, telling The Intercept she had “moved on from the 2010 campaign.”
The beneficiary of all this chaos was Coons, who was suddenly saved from a slaughter on Election Day. “Just the luckiest guy in the world,” said Tom Gordon, a former New Castle County executive whose terms bookended Coons’s time in the office, of the man known in Delaware as “the accidental senator.”
Coons joined Carper in the Senate, where Carper had been elected in 2000 after serving his two terms as governor. In 2018, progressives finally tried their hand at an O’Donnell-esque disruption of the Delaware Way, minus the weirdness, when Kerri Evelyn Harris had the temerity to challenge Carper for his Senate seat. Harris raised very little money but got a last minute burst of national support from groups like Justice Democrats, who were feeling good after the primary win earlier that summer by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Harris, who had the support of the Working Families Party, had campaigned for Ocasio-Cortez, and she returned the favor, traveling south to Delaware to rally for Harris. Carper survived comfortably, winning 65 percent of the vote — but his total tally was just 53,000 votes, an enticingly small number.
Harris’s campaign was hobbled by a dearth of progressive infrastructure, but the locals who came together to support her campaign hoped to build something lasting. Out of her race, some green shoots are emerging. A statewide slate of candidates, topped by Jess Scarane, who is challenging Coons, is now taking a run at the party establishment in the polls on Tuesday, hoping to get a toehold on power in the state that, by virtue of its laissez-faire approach, sets corporate tax and regulatory policy for the rest of the country.
The slate, backed by the Working Families Party, includes two candidates for Wilmington City Council (Shané Darby in the 2nd District and Coby Owens in the 1st), three state House candidates (Eric Morrison, Madinah Wilson-Anton, and Larry Lambert), and a state Senate candidate (Marie Pinkney).
Combined, the local candidates are aiming to win around 10,000 votes, while Scarane’s team believes she needs around 40,000 to top Coons. By Monday, 60,071 Democrats had returned ballots, according to Scarane’s campaign. What primary day turnout will look like given the pandemic is hard to predict.
Nothing like it has been tried in Delaware, and the members of the slate have faced intense pressure from the Delaware political community not to rock the boat. Owens, running for a Wilmington council seat, has faced particular resistance. Owens, 25, is the nephew, on one side of his family, of the longest-serving Black man in Delaware politics, and, on the other side, the longest-serving Black woman. But raised by a single mom in the city, he decided that the system was not serving those it needed to. In 2018, he bucked the Delaware Way and backed Harris, and this cycle has stepped forward on his own. “It’s been difficult,” said Owens.
“I’ve been around politics since I was a baby,” he went on. “Both sides of my family are very political and I’ve been engaged, so I’ve built those relationships, and I think on some ends, people have enough respect for me to understand that this isn’t personal — I’m still gonna break bread with you after I push like hell to see the embetterment of my community — but on the other side, some people are upset and think that I push too hard.”
For instance, Owens said, he recently organized the largest Black Lives Matter rally ever held in Wilmington, but he ran into opposition when he used that energy to push for actual legislative changes. Owens and his allies collected the information of as many people at the rally as possible, and had them demand repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, as well as calling for other concrete police reforms.
Now, an independent expenditure — rare in a city council race — has popped up to combat Owens.
The IE has been sending mass texts to voters in Wilmington telling them that Owens supports defunding the police, exploiting the gap between the national rhetoric around policing on the left and the type of police reform many voters in hard-hit cities like Wilmington say they want. The incumbent councilmember, Linda Gray, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Though Owens has been protesting for years, and been arrested for civil disobedience, he does not engage in some of the more radical posturing that lives online. At the Wilmington protest he organized, he successfully kept it nonviolent.
In Scarane, Coons is facing his first primary challenger, having been unopposed in 2010 and 2014. The senator has largely been able to dodge national attention from the left during his career, despite the fact that he serves in a blue state and frequently aligns with Republicans. Coons has made bipartisanship the cornerstone of his approach to the Senate, refusing to sign onto any bill that doesn’t have a GOP co-sponsor. Republicans have no similar pretensions to cooperation, meaning that Coons’s areas of legislative pursuit have been limited to issues like patent reform that can garner GOP backing. (Coons has also been one of the most outspoken defenders of the filibuster, but he has begun to soften amid the primary challenge and as the prospect of Republicans thoroughly bottling up Joe Biden’s agenda has come into focus.)
“These votes are not gaining compromises, they’re selling us out.”
In recent years, however, that record has been harder to ignore, as Coons has shown willingness to approve Donald Trump’s judicial and executive nominations — his “present” vote in April 2018 on Mike Pompeo’s nomination for secretary of state was pivotal to moving the vote out of committee and speeding up the confirmation process. That type of political maneuvering, which led Politico to dub him “the GOP’s favorite Democrat” in 2018, has now led to increasing criticism from the left for the junior senator, and a challenge from Scarane.
The Scarane campaign has painted Coons as out of touch with the state and representing a corporate-funded style of politics that the Democratic Party needs to move away from. She’s been relentlessly on the attack; on Labor Day, after Coons posted on Twitter about his commitment to labor, she tweeted a video of the senator referring to his tough bargaining against unions as county executive of New Castle County.
For a politician of Coons’s stature in the party to be continually running interference for the GOP, said Scarane, shows the incumbent is out of touch. Scarane told The Intercept that while Coons portrays himself as a compromiser and mediator between Republicans and Democrats, in practice that just means voting for GOP policies and getting nothing in return. “These votes are not gaining compromises, they’re selling us out,” she said.
The Coons campaign sees it differently. “I don’t know what votes they’re pointing to but any honest accounting Senator Coons for the last several years has been holding the Trump administration accountable at every turn,” said spokesperson Sean Coit. “At the same time, certainly Chris has been willing to work across the aisle to get things done for Delawareans.”
It could all be mooted if Joe Biden wins the presidential election. A Biden administration could spell a cabinet position for Coons, most likely in the State Department, meaning he might now be spending millions to defend a seat he’ll vacate in less than six months. But it wouldn’t be for nothing: If he holds onto his seat and then joins the Biden administration, the Delaware establishment would once again be able to appoint a replacement for the next two years until a special election can be held. “We don’t want him to spend $7 million so the governor can appoint someone unelected to that seat again,” Scarane said.
“The senator would be honored for the opportunity to serve Delaware for another term,” said Coit when asked by The Intercept about Coons’s possible cabinet seat.
The senator dropped more than half a million dollars on digital and TV ads to kick off September, despite taking an approach to campaigning that appears set on ignoring his challenger, whom he has not faced in a debate. “You can’t get away from his ads, but he’s not willing to have a conversation or debate about where we stand on the issues,” Scarane said.
Coit rejected that claim, telling The Intercept that the Coons campaign had not heard from Scarane’s team about holding a debate before last week. “It’s hardly something we’ve heard from the Scarane campaign,” Coit said. As for the ad buy, Coit said, “the senator takes running for election incredibly seriously.”
When voters learn about both Scarane’s platform and Coons’s record, the progressive insurgent’s campaign argued, voters quickly move her way. Politicians like Coons, Scarane told The Intercept, have used their power to perpetuate a political culture in the state where the urge to maintain the power of the status quo has led voters to not expect better.
“People are seeing what our vision of the future actually is, rather than running on ‘better things aren’t possible,'” said Scarane, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Delaware. She’s running on a platform that includes universal health care, abolishing ICE, conditioning aid to Israel on the treatment of the Palestinians, and many other progressive priorities.
While Scarane faces the institutional power of a well-connected senator with a huge amount of cash, she can rely at least in part on the enthusiasm from local groups who have thrown their support behind her campaign as a continuation of the work that began in 2018 to overthrow the state’s party establishment.
Yianni Jannelli, a member of DSA’s Delaware chapter, said the group backed Scarane in part because she is a member but also because she shares their goals and priorities. The group also backed Harris in her 2018 challenge to Carper. Jannelli told The Intercept that he believes Scarane has a good chance to take out Coons, citing Coons’s record of voting with Trump at a higher rate than other senators, a topic the group frequently brings up to voters during phone banking. “Senators better in touch with their Democrat constituents like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren have barely voted with Trump 15 percent of the time on average,” Jannelli explained. “By comparison, Chris Coons has voted in support of Trump’s interests by nearly twice that number. A staunchly blue state, one of few left in the union, cannot afford to have such misrepresentation in the Senate.”
While the national wing of the Sunrise Movement has not gotten involved in the race, the local hub, Sunrise Newark, endorsed Scarane on June 19. Scarane signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, showing she is serious about climate policy, said the group’s president Carl Nelson-Poteet. “We reached out to both candidates,” said Nelson-Poteet, “asking them to sign the pledge and fill out a questionnaire; she was the only one who signed the pledge.”
Sunrise Newark chief political officer Brant Roun added that Scarane’s policies align with those of the climate-focused group and that the progressive insurgent understands the magnitude of the crisis. That is more pronounced in Delaware, a seaside state which will be — and already is being — drastically affected by climate change.
Both Nelson-Poteet and Roun told The Intercept they are sensing voters are receptive to Scarane’s message. “Her platform resonates with people,” said Nelson-Poteet. “It seems every time we hear something about her from voters, it’s positive.”
Yet despite that broad-based support on the ground, an absence of national groups investing their attention and energy into the race presents challenges for the campaign. Major groups like Justice Democrats haven’t gotten involved in the contest, and while Our Revolution and Sunrise Movement’s local hubs have backed Scarane, the national groups have not. Media focus has only recently turned toward Delaware’s last-in-the-nation Democratic primary after covering dynamic campaigns in New York, Missouri, and Massachusetts for the summer. That’s left Scarane without much institutional support outside of her state’s progressive establishment.
“A staunchly blue state, one of few left in the union, cannot afford to have such misrepresentation in the Senate.”
The lack of national progressive attention to Scarane’s race is in contrast with the ways the Senate campaigns of Charles Booker in Kentucky and Ed Markey in Massachusetts were prioritized and has left her underfunded and without the full gamut of volunteer resources other insurgent candidates have had. The campaign had been hopeful that with enough people on the phones, they would be able to turn out the 40,000 voters they believed Scarane needs. (By Monday, 60,071 Democrats had returned mail ballots, the campaign said.)
Why some races catch on nationally and some don’t is always a bit of a mystery, but also has a chicken-and-egg element to it. Groups like Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement have limited capacity, and so they look to direct their energy where they can have the most impact. Fundraising and media coverage can serve as a gauge of whether a campaign’s viability is viable enough to get behind, but without backing from those types of groups, and without access to wealthy donors, that fundraising, momentum, and media coverage is hard to come by.
Also hampering Scarane’s ability to garner national attention is her lack of a compelling, working-class backstory, which in American politics has driven public interest in candidates since before the founding of the country.
Scarane is a former digital marketing specialist who moved to Delaware 10 years ago. It’s a hurdle in a state where the political culture places high value on generations-long connections to the region. Voters in Delaware value political experience, and while Scarane has been active in her community and in multiple causes, she has never held elected office — a limitation that held Harris back too.
Scarane staffer Will Weidner, a member of DSA Delaware, told The Intercept that he finds the lack of national attention and support frustrating. To Weidner, Scarane’s push against Coons should be a bigger deal for progressive groups, especially considering that by a number of metrics the campaign is in line with other successful primary challengers with respect to volunteers and the ground game. “We’re a group of people who are pragmatic and relentless,” said Weidner. “By that, I mean we think we’re competitive here and we’re not going to get down because we’re not getting attention from other key players.”
Because of what Scarane and Coons represent, Weidner continued, for big national groups and organizations to not be on board with the progressive’s campaign is confusing. “I don’t think there is a better, bigger example of what left talks about in politicians they want than Jess and Democrats to be scared of, which is Coons,” said Weidner.
Coit said the insurgent campaign was overly reactive and obsessed with Twitter. In comments referring to Coons’s decades in Delaware as a contrast to Scarane, Coit opined that convincing voters to reject the senator was relying on “a playbook that doesn’t make much sense.”
“I think it’s been disorganized and not really a clear message,” said Coit.
Mark Egerman, a longtime Democratic Party activist who worked on Harris’s Delaware Senate 2018 primary campaign, said that he understands the frustration over the lack of national attention and resources to the contest. Calling the race a contest that “ought to be a winnable primary,” Egerman said a lack of sustained progressive energy and organizing between election cycles has left races like Scarane’s the victim of a still-developing movement.
Part of the problem that’s bedeviling the Scarane campaign more broadly, said Egerman, is that the progressive movement’s wins over the past few years have been surprise victories where candidates “catch fire,” citing the wins of Cori Bush in Missouri and Jamaal Bowman in New York, and even the high-profile loss of Alex Morse in Massachusetts. Egerman said the singular focus on one candidate can leave organizers on the back foot when it comes to building the kind of infrastructure needed to keep the movement going in between cycles.
But Scarane told The Intercept that in her view, that’s just what the progressive movement is doing in Delaware. “We know people are hungry for better options, but not having that infrastructure can make that hard, ” she said. “We built on the Kerri and Bernie runs and built up our volunteers to continue challenging establishment power.”
A further challenge for organizers and progressive insurgents, said Egerman, is that “high salience” elections, like the primaries in 2020, bring out more voters. But with more voters come more lower-information, local-level voters who will vote for the incumbent due to name recognition. “Last minute heroics don’t work anymore due to mail-in voting and high salience elections,” said Egerman. “There’s more voting in all elections, and because of that you can’t necessarily get upsets like you got with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”
Still, said Connor, Scarane and her slate have gotten to a place where they can’t be ruled out. “She’s had enough money to effectively campaign,” said Connor.