Primary election results offer glimpse of possible futures

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Lauren Witzke, middle, talks to Jim Startzman, left, and Tyler Yzaguirre at the primary election watch party at Fraizer’s Restaurant on Tuesday night. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

DOVER — In some ways, Tuesday’s Delaware primary was an encapsulation of the state of American politics.

Turnout set a record, reflecting interest from voters of both major parties. A slate of diverse progressives won, with four of them knocking off incumbents, including the leading lawmaker in the state Senate. A candidate campaigning over anger related to COVID restrictions claimed the GOP nomination for governor. And an outsider who is running on a platform that includes a total immigration ban and was not the party’s endorsed candidate won the GOP nod for the U.S. Senate.

The changing of the guard continues in some spots, though other officeholders earned victories without too much fuss. Overall, Tuesday was a big night for progressive activists hoping to push the Democratic Party to the left, as they saw victories that could help advance an agenda. In particular, gun control now looks more likely, and other issues like marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform received boosts as well.

Sen. Chris Coons being interviewed by reporters outside the polling place at the Cheswold firehouse Tuesday afternoon. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

The General Assembly’s makeup has changed significantly from just a decade ago, becoming younger and more diverse, a pattern set to continue. Delaware still has the general election on Nov. 3, but each of the four progressive Democrats who successfully primaried incumbents will be favored to win their districts given voter registration.

The biggest victory for activists was in the New Castle-area 13th Senatorial District, where social worker Marie Pinkney upended President Pro Tempore David McBride. As the leading member of the chamber for the past four years, Sen. McBride played a pivotal role in determining what bills got to the floor, and he angered many Democrats in 2019 by keeping several gun control measures in a committee he chaired, citing lack of support.

Long-standing allegations he does not live in his district full-time, claims he’s strongly denied, also recently resurfaced.

Only one person in Delaware history was in the General Assembly longer than Sen. McBride, who spent 42 years as a lawmaker.

There will surely be jostling over the next few months to determine who succeeds Sen. McBride as president pro tempore when lawmakers return in January. Majority Leader Nicole Poore and Majority Whip Bryan Townsend seem to be in the mix, although the outlook could certainly change by November.

After a long span of powerful incumbents winning re-election over and over, Delaware has now seen three Senate presidents pro tempore lose in the past eight years, with two going down in Democratic primaries.

Elsewhere Tuesday, Madinah Wilson-Anton beat Rep. John Viola in the 26th Representative District, which covers part of Newark; Eric Morrison topped Rep. Earl Jaques in the 27th Representative District near Glasgow; and Larry Lambert beat first-term Rep. Ray Seigfried in the Arden-area 7th Representative District.

Rep. Viola, who was first elected in 1998, was the longest-serving member of the House, and Rep. Jaques had chaired the influential House Education Committee for several years.

It’s believed Ms. Wilson-Anton will become the first Muslim Delawarean elected to the General Assembly if she wins in November. Similarly, Mr. Morrison and Ms. Pinkney can become the first openly gay legislators to win election here (though not the first to hold office).

Just as minorities are becoming a more important part of the Democratic electorate, the Delaware legislature is becoming more diverse. The General Assembly currently has eight Black members, and with Ms. Wilson-Anton, Mr. Lambert and Ms. Pinkney, that figure could easily jump to 11 very soon.

There were just five Black lawmakers prior to the 2018 elections.

When the 151st General Assembly kicks off in 2021, it will likely include the first openly transgender state senator to win election and serve anywhere in the country. Sarah McBride, a well-known activist, easily won a Democratic primary Tuesday to replace retiring Sen. Harris McDowell in the 1st Senatorial District.

She is heavily favored to triumph in November due to her name recognition and the district’s strong Democratic lean.

Ms. McBride, Ms. Wilson-Anton and Ms. Pinkney are each more than 35 years younger than the Democrat they are seeking to succeed.

Primary impact

Paul Brewer, the research director at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication, noted the results could send a powerful message that causes House leadership to move to the left.

Progressives did not have as much luck at the top of the ticket, however, as U.S. Sen. Chris Coons easily turned back a challenge from Jess Scarane, who sought to unseat him from the left.

Despite the expectations some activists had for Ms. Scarane’s campaign, in the end she failed to do markedly better than David L. Williams Jr., who challenged Gov. John Carney in the Democratic primary. Mr. Williams was virtually invisible and apparently did not spend money on his campaign, yet he garnered 15% compared to Ms. Scarane’s 27%.

In a similar congressional primary two years ago, Kerri Evelyn Harris picked up 35% taking on moderate Sen. Tom Carper.

Ms. Scarane’s efforts were hurt by COVID, which made it harder for all candidates but especially challengers to interact with voters.

But there still had to be happy faces on the left Wednesday morning.

“Delaware voters rejected the go-along-to-get-along status quo and elected leaders who will be accountable to the people,” Vanessa Clifford, Mid-Atlantic political director for the Working Families Party, said in a statement. “This is a big step towards a Delaware that works for everyone, not just the wealthy and well connected. We are also grateful for Jess Scarane’s bold primary run and were proud to stand with her in a tough fight. It’s a new day in Delaware, and we’re just getting started.”

The Working Families Party threw its support behind several Democratic challengers, as did activist groups like Moms Demand Action and Delaware United.

Delaware Democratic Party Chairman Erik Raser-Schramm touted Tuesday’s results, noting turnout set records.

“Congratulations to all our candidates on engaging voters all across our diverse party. We are a stronger party because of their hard work and the grass-roots organizing of their dedicated supporters,” he said.

“For the better part of the last year, our candidates have led robust conversations as to how to move our party and our country forward. Now we have 49 days to come together as Democrats and build on our coalition to elect proven leaders like Joe Biden and defeat Donald Trump and his enablers once and for all.

“Make no mistake: Primary nights are difficult ones as we abruptly say goodbye to some of our most stalwart leaders; people who have dedicated their lives to our state and to our party. At the same time, we are excited to welcome a new and diverse generation of leaders to the forefront of our party. It is up to each and every one of us to embrace them and see them home in November.”

Republican results

Across the aisle, Julianne Murray earned the GOP nomination for governor, beating five others, while Lauren Witzke turned back the party-endorsed candidate to claim the nod for the Senate. In the House of Representatives, Lee Murphy easily took the party’s nomination.

In those races, GOP voters were fired up about COVID restrictions and eager to back candidates who support Donald Trump. All three nominees, in candidate questionnaires for the Delaware State News, said they believe the country and state are at risk from the “radical left” and are determined to fight for conservative values they are confident can “keep America great.”

The GOP results saw outsiders earn victories, even as they differed on how exactly they got there. Ms. Murray, an attorney who has sued Gov. Carney over limitations stemming from COVID-19, topped five gubernatorial hopefuls, including two state senators, one of whom was the nominee in 2016. She received the party’s endorsement at its July convention, although the GOP could not spend any resources promoting her.

Her denunciations of coronavirus restrictions attracted many Republican voters, Dr. Brewer said, although “it’s a separate question whether that’ll resonate with general election voters.”

Ms. Witzke won despite not getting the GOP endorsement ahead of time, but she’ll be facing a steep uphill battle in the general election. Not only do Democrats have a hefty registration pool and not only does Sen. Coons have several million dollars on hand, but Ms. Witzke, Dr. Brewer said, is “probably going to generate some headlines that will create a challenging environment for the Republican Party.”

A former drug addict who worked for a cartel and has been open about her struggles with opioids, she strongly backs both traditional values and President Trump’s “America first” approach. A millennial, she’s active on social media, often blasting Democrats as being complicit in the destruction of the United States.

She has described President Trump as the victim of “manufactured scandals by the elites and their propaganda assets in the mainstream media” who hate him because he is a successful outsider, Democrats as “burning our cities in pursuit of a Marxist revolution,” Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist organization” and a Hindu statue being installed outside a temple in Delaware as signaling “End stage America.”

Ms. Witzke, who would be the first woman Delaware has elected to the Senate, has shown support for QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory that holds the president is one of the few forces fighting evil pedophile Democrats and their allies in Hollywood and the media.

Though she has said she does not believe its veracity when directly asked by the media in recent months, Ms. Witzke has also tweeted support for the theory in the past and did not deny being a “QAnon candidate” when a radio host on Delaware 105.9 FM posed a question Wednesday.

“From what I understand with QAnon, they’re just people who want pedophiles held accountable. And if there’s no place for them in the GOP, then, you know, what kind of party are we?” she replied.

Ms. Witzke has already drawn comparisons to Christine O’Donnell, a far-right candidate and outsider who unsuccessfully sought the same Senate seat in 2010 and lost to Sen. Coons, then the New Castle County executive.

That Senate race deeply shook the Delaware GOP after Ms. O’Donnell stunned longtime politician Mike Castle in the Republican primary.

In some ways, the GOP is still recovering from that primary, Dr. Brewer said: “I have not yet figured out where the Delaware Republican Party is going.”

After 2018, Democrats hold all nine statewide offices for the first time in Delaware history. The party also has won the last seven gubernatorial elections, most of which weren’t even close, but Republicans believe 2020 will be different. Delaware GOP Chairwoman Jane Brady said voters are excited to back a host of well-qualified candidates holding conservative ideals.

Tuesday saw record turnout, enabled by mail-in voting that lawmakers created due to COVID concerns. Nearly 178,000 Democrats and Republicans, almost a third of eligible voters, took part. Roughly 45% of votes were cast by mail.

More Democrats actually voted by mail than in person, though the shares were close, while Republicans were several times more likely to vote at a polling place than by mail.

In comparison, there were about 121,000 participants in 2018’s primary contest. Around 5% of those voted absentee.

There were reports of some issues with mail-in voting, such as people receiving an incorrect ballot. Tuesday night also appeared to have some hiccups, as the first results were not posted until about 9 p.m., an hour after polls closed, and a few straggling precincts were not in until around midnight.

Election Commissioner Anthony Albence noted there were some expected challenges Tuesday but said he was largely pleased with the primary process.

“Implementing Vote By Mail, and the high volumes of vote by mail and absentee ballots, presented some new challenges to us—but we were happy that we could service so many vote by mail and absentee requests, while continuing to operate the traditional polling places, while servicing so many vote by mail and absentee voting requests, and to be able to report results on election night,” he wrote in an email.

“We will continue to be sure we are as efficient as possible in servicing vote by mail and absentee ballot requests, and continue to recruit as many poll workers as possible, continuing to provide comprehensive training on our new voting equipment to make sure they are ready to assist voters.”