What to watch in Delaware’s primaries this week

Sen. Chris Coons faces challenge from the left

Sen. Chris Coons faces a challenge from the left in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Delaware.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Chris Coons faces a challenge from the left in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Delaware. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 14, 2020 at 6:00am

The state that was first to ratify the Constitution is one of the last to hold primary contests this year, with Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons facing a challenge from the left Tuesday, while Republican contests for House and Senate feature establishment-backed candidates against younger opponents with a history of opioid addiction.

Here’s three things to watch Tuesday.

Is Coons vulnerable from the left?

Hoping to join a pool of younger progressive Democrats who have toppled established incumbents, 34-year-old Jessica Scarane is challenging Coons as he makes a bid for a second full term.

Coons first entered the Senate after winning a 2010 special election to serve out the rest of Joe Biden’s term after he became vice president. He’s now a key Biden insider with the ear of the Democratic presidential nominee. Coons is known for seeking consensus-based legislative solutions and building relationships across the aisle, a style Scarane has targeted during the campaign.

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The digital strategist and first-time candidate says she drew inspiration from Kerri Harris’ 2018 primary challenge to Delaware’s senior senator, Democrat Tom Carper. Harris won just 35 percent of the vote, but her effort was seen as upending a wait-your-turn political tradition, part of “the Delaware way.”

Scarane is taking Harris’ torch and hoping to join the ranks of progressive Democrats such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman who defeated House Democratic incumbents in deep-blue districts in 2018 and earlier this year, respectively.

Scarane has endorsements to match, including from Brand New Congress, The Sunrise Movement and 350 Action, groups that have supported other progressive challengers across the country. Her campaign platform includes support for universal health care, a reimagined criminal justice system and the Green New Deal.

While the Working Families Party spent $50,000 on a digital ad buy supporting Scarane in late July, Coons has a clear money advantage. He raised $6 million to Scarane’s $324,000 through Aug. 26, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures. He ended the pre-primary reporting period with $2.7 million in the bank compared with $150,000 for Scarane.

Traditional résumé, or QAnon believer?

Republican voters in the Senate primary will choose between two candidates who fully support President Donald Trump and warn that a Biden presidency would usher in an extreme liberal agenda, but they are divided sharply on style and experience.

Jim DeMartino and Lauren Witzke are facing off for the nomination to become Delaware’s first Republican senator in 20 years.

DeMartino, 62, ran unsuccessfully for the state House in 2016 and 2018 and touts an agenda of fiscal conservatism. He has the backing of the state Republican Party and experience as a Marine, a defense contractor and a lawyer.

Witzke, 32, is among a new brand of Republicans, drawn to the GOP by Trump’s “America first” message. She has worked to differentiate herself from DeMartino with her online presence and has found a voice in hard-line conservative circles on Twitter and as a guest on One America News Network, a far-right channel.

She has voiced support for the wide-ranging QAnon conspiracy theory that alleges a “deep-state” plot against Trump.

Witzke says her life experience, including falling into opioid addiction and working for cartels before her recovery, make her qualified to tackle issues, including immigration, health care and the opioid epidemic, because she has seen each system personally.

Both Witzke and DeMartino have echoed the president’s unsubstantiated claims that mail-in voting is unreliable and a vehicle for fraud.

So far, more than 100,000 Delaware voters have requested vote-by-mail or absentee ballots. Roughly 63,000 voters had returned them as of Wednesday morning, according to the state Department of Elections.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Delaware Senate race Solid Democratic.

Will a past conviction for assault disqualify House candidate?

Delaware’s sole House member, Lisa Blunt Rochester, is unopposed in the Democratic primary, but two Republicans are facing off to challenge her in November.

The race between Lee Murphy and Matthew Morris also pits an establishment Republican against a newcomer with a unique backstory.

Murphy, a 68-year-old actor, has the endorsement of the Delaware GOP and is making his second bid for the seat.

In 2018, he was also the state GOP’s preferred candidate but lost the primary to businessman Scott Walker, who is running for governor this year.

Morris, 34, is a new face on the ballot. The sales manager of a furniture store, he has branded his campaign as a comeback story.

Morris was convicted of first-degree aggravated assault following a 2013 incident in Philadelphia. Convicted felons can hold elected federal office depending on their conviction. He has asserted throughout the race that he has been treated unfairly by members of his own party for his criminal history.

Morris, who is gay and says he recovered from an opioid addiction five years ago, describes himself as socially liberal but fiscally conservative and a believer in Trump’s “America first” agenda.

Inside Elections rates the race for Delaware’s at-large House seat Solid Democratic.