What the primary election winners and losers mean for the future of Delaware politics
Four septuagenarians in the Delaware General Assembly, all white men, lost their seats in the Tuesday primary election to younger progressive lawmakers who are either Black, openly gay or Muslim.
The primary winners, should they be victorious again in the November general election, would not just make history by diversifying the demographic makeup of the state's 62-person lawmaking body.
Their upsets, along with a contemporaneous statewide Republican primary win by avid Trump supporter Lauren Witzke, who is vying for the state's U.S. Senate seat, are an omen that Delaware politics is shifting amid an increasingly polarized state and country.
The First State's moderate Democratic Party that traditionally aligns with labor and police unions could be inching further left toward more progressive agendas like environmental protection and police accountability.
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To supporters of the Democratic Party's progressive movement, including some lawmakers who were elected to the Statehouse in previous years, Tuesday was a boon for law changes like higher wages and gun control that have been just a few votes shy of passing.
They can expect help from people like Jessica Scarane, a progressive who lost her statewide primary bid to incumbent U.S. Sen. Chris Coons and said she plans to help progressives in the Statehouse implement the law changes she pushed for in her campaign at the state level instead of federally.
Progressives also hope that the new faces in the state Capitol will shakeup practices like the Delaware Way, the bipartisan tradition in which First State politicians make decisions and work out tensions behind closed doors.
"Delawareans are tired of the Delaware Way," said Eric Morrison, a 45-year-old human resources project manager at JPMorgan Chase who defeated 72-year-old Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, on Tuesday. "They are tired of feeling like they have had people in office, sometimes for decades, who've become complacent, who are not in touch with what their constituents really want."
Since first being elected in 2008, Jaques had faced only one Democratic primary challenge before this year, in 2010.
"More than anything, it forces leadership, Democratic leadership in Dover, to acknowledge that the Democratic Party is changing and that it's time for them to change with it," Morrison said.
But to dissenters, including at least one of the lawmakers who lost their seats on Tuesday, the loss of the Delaware Way isn't something to celebrate.
"They may have this ‘it’s my way or the highway’ attitude, and that’s not helpful," said Rep. Raymond Seigfried, D-Brandywine Hundred, who lost his primary race. "That will simply add to the chaos, similar to what we have in Washington. We don’t need that here. We really don’t."
WINNERS AND LOSERS:2020 Delaware primary election results
After one term in the state House, Seigfried lost his seat representing the district that covers Claymont to 40-year-old progressive candidate and corporate banker Larry Lambert, who criticized Democrats like Seigfried for creating "incremental change" and not adhering directly with the party's platform when legislating. Seigfried, who considers himself an "independent," said he "likes to understand both sides of an issue" when voting.
To Madinah Wilson-Anton, a 26-year-old policy analyst and former legislative staffer who on Tuesday unseated her former boss, 70-year-old, two-decade incumbent Rep. John Viola, D-Newark, the onus doesn't lie on the challengers who won on Tuesday.
"How is the establishment going to work with the progressives?" she said, pointing to the progressive lawmakers who took office before this year. "Because at this point, it's a sizable amount of us. ... The question really doesn't lie with the newcomers. It lies with those remnants of the old guard."
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Before this election, Viola had faced only one Democratic primary challenger in 2006 since first winning the district in 1998.
Meanwhile, in New Castle, 78-old Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk's Nest, who has been in office since 1978 and before this year hadn't faced a primary challenger since 1986, lost his seat on Tuesday to 30-year-old Marie Pinkney, a social worker at Christiana Hospital.
Jaques, Viola and McBride did not respond on Thursday to requests for comment for this story.
Senate Majority Leader Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, said the primary upsets showed that voters urgently want change.
"With everything that’s been happening – the COVID, the social injustices – it’s basically people standing up and saying, ‘OK, it’s time for us to move forward,'" said Poore, who did not face a primary challenge. "And what does it look like? It doesn’t look like the same old same old."
Sen. McBride's loss means the General Assembly will have to elect a new leader to its upper chamber, who will decide if and when bills get voted on. Depending on who is picked, the new president pro tempore could either hinder or accelerate some of the law changes that progressives in the Statehouse are pushing for. Democrats have yet to think about new leadership and are focused on winning in November before they can, Poore said.
While the new lawmakers coming in could be enough to tip the scales for certain votes if they win in November, the coronavirus pandemic likely reshaped the legislative priorities of incumbent lawmakers who did not lose their seats, Poore said.
Democratic Party executive director Jesse Chadderdon thinks Tuesday's results are more than just "a revolution or referendum" on the center-left, especially as voter turnout has increased.
The coronavirus pandemic has also turned "issues on paper" to "kitchen table issues" for a lot of families who are now reckoning with their relationship with the government, he added.
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"It's about people realizing that government matters, and that they're relying on government in a lot of facets in their lives," Chadderdon said. "The definition of who and what is electable is changing as our party changes and becomes more diverse."
Many progressive candidates, including Scarane and those who unseated Statehouse incumbents, had started their campaigns before the coronavirus pandemic. While social distancing stifled their door-knocking efforts, those candidates expected the virus to increase voters' awareness and urgency toward change to issues that had been exacerbated during the pandemic, such as racial injustice and health care.
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"The issues that we ran on are issues that our community has been facing for a long time, and they didn't just start because of COVID," Wilson-Anton said.
Meanwhile, the Delaware GOP is changing with an increasingly Trumpian electorate that is preferring candidates like Witzke, whose social media activity includes retweets of QAnon conspiracy theory that baselessly claims that there is a "deep state" apparatus run by political elites, business leaders and Hollywood celebrities who are also pedophiles and actively working against Trump.
Witzke defeated the party's endorsed pick, attorney Jim DeMartino, following rallies to reopen the state and one anti-human trafficking event in mid-August titled "Save the Children," a common slogan used by the QAnon movement.
Now, the GOP is standing behind the nominee.
"She's very bright," said GOP Chairwoman Jane Brady when praising Witzke's aggressive campaign strategy. "Her position on some issues is more to the right or to the extreme side than a lot of other people's, but the Republicans came out and made a choice."
While Witzke has taken pages from President Donald Trump's playbook with controversial social media posts and harsh insults, her platform is arguably more extreme than Trump's. It includes pushing for a moratorium on immigration into the U.S. and financial incentives for people to get married and have children.
But Witzke is "right with us" on issues such as school reform, jobs, the economy and public safety, Brady said.
"I don't see her as being so extreme that she doesn't have the support of a vast majority of the Republican Party in the fall," Brady said. "I don't find her to be particularly polarizing."
None of the General Assembly's 24 Republicans were challenged for their seat on Tuesday, though several face Democratic challengers in November.
Emily Taylor, former vice chair of the Delaware GOP, worries that the shrinking number of compromise-driven, moderate politicians from both parties in the state will isolate the average voter in general elections and make it harder for lawmakers to agree on policies.
"Ideas are always better when they’re thought about, when they’re talked about, when they’re compromised on," Taylor said. "To the extent that we can do that as much as possible, that’s always the best way to make the best laws."
Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2281 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.