Candidates meet in first debate after primary

DOVER — Differences between the Republican and Democratic nominees for statewide office were on stark display Tuesday in the first debate following this month’s primary election.

Featuring the major-party candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, insurance commissioner, U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, the forum took place one week after voters picked their nominees for a number of offices. The event, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Delaware and Hadassah, is a long-standing mark of the shift from primary season to the general election, though unlike prior iterations, it was held virtually.

More than 600 people registered for the Zoom forum, according to a moderator, with audience members submitting questions before and during the discussion.

Fresh off days of controversy over an offensive Facebook post and past support for an unfounded conspiracy theory, Republican Senate nominee Lauren Witzke doubled down.

Ms. Witzke on Friday posted a meme on Facebook that contained an image of several African children dancing and the words “Black babies when Ruth Vader Ginsburg dies,” in reference to the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that same night. A flood of criticism quickly followed: The Delaware Democratic Party urged the GOP to renounce Ms. Witzke, a Republican state senator called on her to drop out of the race and the Republican Party chairwoman said the post is “reprehensible” and Ms. Witzke “has some work to do to address the harm this matter has caused.”

Tuesday, the nominee defended the post, firing shots at Justice Bader Ginsburg and her Democratic opponent, Sen. Chris Coons, while repeating a prior stance that Black Lives Matter is a “terrorist organization.”

Asked why she believes Republicans should confirm a Supreme Court justice less than two months before the election despite the GOP successfully stonewalling a nomination from then-President Barack Obama ahead of the 2016 contest, Ms. Witzke insisted senators have an obligation to the U.S. Constitution. Sen. Coons is failing in his duties by resisting a vote, she said.

For his part, Sen. Coons said he is still hoping to convince some Republicans to join GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski in opposing a nomination before the election.

Posed a question about whether he would become secretary of state should Joe Biden win the White House, Sen. Coons said he plans to serve a full term in the Senate if reelected but would “seriously consider” such a role if asked.

In response to Ms. Witzke’s description of Black Lives Matter as a group of violent evildoers, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, the first Black Delawarean elected to Congress, said the movement is helping finally bring to light “the deep structural and institutional racism in this country.”

Several of the Republican candidates called for an end to COVID restrictions, blasting Gov. John Carney for his policies over the past six months. Ms. Witzke, gubernatorial nominee Julianne Murray and House nominee Lee Murphy each said they disagree with a hypothetical national mask mandate, describing it as unnecessary to control the flow of COVID and as a violation of individual liberties.

“This is an infringement on peoples’ personal rights,” Mr. Murphy said. “I think we have to give people credit in our society to make their decisions.”

Ms. Murray argued Delaware should open now, accusing Gov. Carney of putting big business and his own interests above most Delawareans’ wellbeing.

The five Democratic nominees — Gov. Carney, Sen. Coons, Rep. Blunt Rochester, Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long and Insurance Commissioner Trinidad Navarro — each urged Delawareans to wear masks, as did GOP lieutenant governor candidate Donyale Hall and insurance commissioner nominee Julia Pillsbury.

“I believe that we should listen to the experts, not ignore or belittle them,” Gov. Carney said, noting more than 200,000 Americans have died from COVID. “We should follow the science. That’s just common sense.”