Democratic Senate primary: Progressive challenger seeks to upset incumbent

DOVER — Chris Coons and Jess Scarane both agree the 2020 general election is perhaps the most important in American history. Where they disagree is on what comes next.

Sen. Coons, who has been one of Delaware’s two members of the Senate since a 2010 special election, is seeking reelection this year. He’s heavily favored in Nov. 3’s contest — but first he must get past Ms. Scarane.

Chris Coons

An unabashed progressive, Ms. Scarane is running on a platform that includes universal health care, a completely revamped criminal justice system, a Green New Deal and a changed economy that shifts power and wealth from the richest few to the masses.
In her view, the United States places far too much emphasis on profits, and the Donald Trump presidency combined with coronavirus have revealed just how deep the problem runs.

“I think we’re in a moment where people were already clamoring for change … then we layer a pandemic on top of that and people who maybe weren’t in a place where they were onboard with universal health care or single-payer system, which I’m running on, started to say, we have millions of people who are losing their jobs and their health care in the middle of a pandemic, so maybe this is a system we need to rethink,” she said.

Ms. Scarane, 35, lives in Wilmington, where she works in development and helps tutor and mentor students.

Sen. Coons, 56 and also a Wilmington resident, has held elected office for the past 20 years, first as New Castle County president and then as county executive. He’s seeking another term to continue pushing for many mainstream Democratic priorities and to deal with what he termed the three crises ripping through the nation at the same time: COVID, the resulting recession and the erupting racial unrest.

Jess Scarane

Sen. Coons is proud of his reputation as one of the most bipartisan senators, believing Delawareans want the members of their congressional delegation to work past gridlock, which requires compromise. He makes an effort to develop friendships with Republican senators and to sponsor bills with as many GOP lawmakers as possible in hopes of forging connections.

Those efforts, Sen. Coons said, enable him to be an effective legislator even when Democrats are in the minority.

Building bridges has become harder even compared to 10 years ago, however, as the atmosphere has grown more “toxic,” he said.

“I don’t think (being friends with Republicans) undermines my bona fides as a Democrat,” he said. “I don’t think that undermines my independence, my ability to call out (Republicans) when I disagree … on an issue. But I think there’s been a loss of that simple decency.”

But to Ms. Scarane, Sen. Coons places too much emphasis on working across the aisle and too frequently votes in ways that benefit big corporations and the top earners at the expense of most Americans.

“There’s this real gap between the people in power and the people that they’re supposed to be serving,” she said.

She takes issue with his campaign donations, which include more than $1 million from political action committees since the start of 2019. As of June 30, Sen. Coons had $3.12 million on hand, compared to $130,000 for Ms. Scarane.

Despite the big gap in resources and the built-in advantage Sen. Coons enjoys as an incumbent, Ms. Scarane expressed confidence, saying her campaign has been able to connect with hundreds of thousands of Delawareans even though coronavirus has prevented her from door knocking as she intended to.

This is the second election in a row one of Delaware’s senators has received a primary challenge from the left. In 2018, progressive activist Kerri Evelyn Harris took on Sen. Tom Carper in a race that received national attention because it came within a few months of several moderate incumbents being upset elsewhere.

In the end, Ms. Harris garnered 35.4%, almost as much as the eventual Republican nominee earned in the general election.

A victory by Ms. Scarane would count as an all-time shocker. Of course, very few people know better than Sen. Coons what impact a primary challenge can have — he won the Senate seat in 2010 after moderate Republican Mike Castle was upended by tea party candidate Christine O’Donnell.

For her part, Ms. Scarane doesn’t see herself as a big underdog — most of her policies, she said, are common-sense ideas based on bettering the lives of all Delawareans and have broad support.

The Trump effect

Both candidates oppose the president and his administration, but Ms. Scarane feels Sen. Coons has not done enough and has in fact hurt the Democratic cause by often compromising with Republicans.

The GOP made obstruction its main weapon under President Barack Obama, and while some have said Republican lawmakers will begin working with Democrats again if Joe Biden is elected president, Ms. Scarane thinks that’s foolish.

For his part, Sen. Coons is hopeful Mr. Biden’s long tenure in the Senate and his eight years as vice president have earned him respect from Republicans despite their political differences. He noted senators of both parties came together to fete Mr. Biden in 2016 just before he left office.

Still, if division has only grown compared to 2010, it’s also increased from just four years ago.

President Trump regularly breaks “longstanding norms,” Sen. Coons said, characterizing his actions as weakening American democracy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo remotely delivered a speech at the Republican National Convention while overseas on a government mission, he noted, part of a pattern of members of President Trump’s administration violating laws about separating politics from government work.

Sen. Coons shot down claims he has been too soft on the president, emphasizing he voted to remove President Trump from office in January after the House impeached him and has opposed many of his cabinet and judicial picks, as well as policies like his Muslim travel ban.

Ms. Scarane agreed President Trump is eroding standards and weakening public confidence in the government, but she firmly believes he is just a symptom, not the cause. Checks and balances only work if they are used, and the failure of Republican and even many Democratic lawmakers to challenge the president is chipping away at our cherished democracy, she said.

Both candidates are worried about the White House’s assault on mail-in voting and the Postal Service, with Sen. Coons’ office receiving 3,000 complaints from Delawareans frustrated or concerned about the USPS.

The senator is also disturbed by the possibility of foreign electoral interference, particularly from Russia, as in 2016. Intelligence officials have warned lawmakers publicly and privately about outside entities influencing the election, Sen. Coons said, noting he’s pushing for additional federal funding to help secure the Nov. 3 contest.

“I think it’s important that all of us do the hard work of reinforcing the validity of our elections, but the whole world really is watching,” he said. “There are dozens and dozens of democracies where authoritarians would like to undermine the legitimacy of democracy. The United States owes it to ourselves, to the world, to our citizens, to our legacy to make sure that we have a free and fair election on time.”

Party schism

Sen. Coons has staked out a number of positions in line with the typical Democratic voter, such as on gun control, voting rights and abortion. But in almost every respect, Ms. Scarane goes farther.

She supports a broad Green New Deal to combat climate change that includes guaranteeing a federal job to anyone who wants one, scaling back American involvement in foreign conflicts, raising taxes on large companies and top earners, providing reparations for slavery and raising the minimum wage to $15 and indexing it to inflation, to name a few.

In some ways, the primary is a microcosm of the battle raging inside the Democratic Party as voters and officials battle over whether and how far it should move to the left.

Ms. Scarane’s side has received a major boost in the past five years, with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020 doing much to build public support for universal health care and a more progressive tax structure. President Trump’s tenure has also stirred outrage and pushed some Americans to the left.

One of Ms. Scarane’s core points is that the United States is suffering mightily from wealth inequality, weakening its democracy and leaving most people on the outside looking in.

Wealth inequality has been growing here over the past 40 years at a more rapid rate than many comparable nations. It especially impacts younger generations, such as Ms. Scarane’s.

According to the Federal Reserve, the top 1% owned 31.2% ($32.6 trillion) of the wealth as of the first quarter of 2020. The bottom 50% had just 1.4% ($1.5 trillion).

“There are people who have hoarded wealth and power far more than they could ever use in a lifetime at the expense of everyone else,” Ms. Scarane said.

She believes a drastic solution to climate change is needed given that Delaware is the lowest-lying state. Much like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s helped revitalize a country suffering through the Great Depression, Ms. Scarane is hopeful a broad public spending campaign aimed at eliminating carbons emissions, ending fossil fuels and strengthening infrastructure can not only set the country up for success in the future, it can grow the economy and get people out of poverty now.

Sen. Coons supports taking steps to combat climate change but said some aspects of the Green New Deal are simply not feasible and make “it awfully easy for Republicans to caricature Democrats as supporting things like ending beef or airline travel.”

He also feels Medicare for all is both a nonstarter in Congress and is too ambitious, preferring to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and add a public option.

Both candidates believe the United States still has a stain from its original sin of slavery, with Sen. Coons describing the 2020 election as being in part about “whether or not we’re going to get serious about doing something about it.”

Delaware has a reputation as a fairly fiscally conservative blue state, with many moderate Democratic leaders overseeing government in recent years. Whether residents feel changes to our society are needed will be determined on Sept. 15, but for her part, Ms. Scarane believes it’s now or never.

“The point that we need to return to normalcy is first of all not possible,” she said. “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”