Screenshot: Jess Scarane and Marie Pinkney participate in a Zoom Q+A in July. (YouTube)
On Tuesday, Delaware went to the polls after one of the most contentious primary seasons in recent memory. At the top of the ticket, Delaware Democrats chose to stick with what they know: Gov. John Carney easily won his primary, while U.S. Sen. Chris Coons—who has spent nearly $2.6 million since the beginning of 2019—easily fended off a challenge from progressive activist Jess Scarane. (Coons will now face a QAnon supporter in the general election, which is a nice way to wrap up a decade that started with him beating Christine O’Donnell.)
While Scarane received roughly 3,000 more votes in the primary than Kerri Evelyn-Harris, who ran against Sen. Tom Carper in 2018, Coons received an eye-popping 34,000 more votes than Carper, and topped 70 percent of the vote. Coons, who has not ruled out immediately abandoning his seat next year to serve in a potential Biden administration, solidified his position as the leader of his generation of Delaware centrists. And it was another lesson—not that we needed it—that even if liberals say they support policies like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and judicial reform, that isn’t always enough, especially when you’re up against money, corporate power, and name recognition.
But further down the ticket, the left had a lot of reasons to celebrate. To start, four state legislative incumbents lost their primaries to challengers backed by the Working Families Party: State Sen. Dave McBride, who had been in the legislature since 1978 and as the state Senate president pro tempore is the single most powerful legislator in the state, and three state representatives, John Viola, Earl Jaques and Raymond Siegfried.
Four might not seem like a lot, but there’s a grand total of 62 people in the Delaware General Assembly total, meaning that in one fell swoop, progressives knocked out eight percent of the 12-person state Senate caucus and 12 percent of the state House caucus.
Replacing them on the Democratic ticket in November is a group of lefty candidates whose elections even six years ago were unthinkable. McBride was defeated by Black social worker Marie Pinkney. Eric Morrison, an openly gay man, defeated Jaques, an opponent of LGBTQ rights who attacked Morrison for performing in drag. Community activist Larry Lambert defeated Siegfried, who is in his first time in office. And Wilson-Anton, a 27-year-old former Viola aide who ran against her old boss, would be the first Muslim woman elected to office in Delaware. All four candidates support the Green New Deal, a Medicaid buy-in option, and a $15 minimum wage; currently, Delaware’s minimum wage is just $9.25 per hour.
Pinkney’s win was the biggest prize. McBride is one of Delaware’s top elected officials, and has been an obstacle to progressive legislation in a state that’s been almost entirely run by Democrats for decades. “When we talked to people in that district it was overwhelmingly easy to persuade voters,” WFP political director Vanessa Clifford told Discourse Blog on Wednesday. “I was with Marie on election day and every person coming up to us knew her. It was just a matter of turning folks out.”
The wins in Delaware follow a national trend: While the left is still struggling to break through in statewide races, as evidenced by Coons’ big win, progressives are slowly but surely building power at the state and local level. The WFP and left-wing groups including the Providence DSA, Reclaim Rhode Island, and the Rhode Island Political Cooperative endorsed 22 candidates in last week’s primary, and 15 won.
DSA and WFP candidates won big in New York House primaries and state legislative races. WFP candidates won more than 50 municipal offices last year. Another four state legislators in Minnesota lost earlier this summer. Five WFP-backed candidates beat incumbent state senators in New Mexico.
“People we know throughout the state and even nationally want things like $15 minimum wage, they want affordable healthcare, they want legalization of marijuana,” Clifford said. Five out of the seven candidates WFP endorsed in Delaware—the four legislative candidates plus Shané Darby, a candidate for city council—won their races on Tuesday. “They want people who have their values representing them in office. After 2016 and 2018 we’ve seen more and more challengers running and winning,” Clifford said.
Outside of the challenges to incumbents, Sarah McBride (no relation) won her state Senate primary and is set to become the highest-ranking transgender elected official in the country; she backs universal paid family leave and reforming Delaware’s broken system of funding public education. And running on a platform largely similar to McBride’s, attorney Kyle Evans Gay won the Democratic primary to run against 5th District GOP Rep. Cathy Cloutier, a moderate who’s been a perpetual top target for Delaware Democrats in the state since I was in high school. (I am now 30.)
To win her primary, Gay beat a former Wilmington cop and a self-described “Joe Biden moderate” whose top issue appeared to be “division in our society.” A decade ago, that kind of rhetoric would have been catnip for Delaware Democrats, and candidates like McBride and Gay would have been considered too left-wing to win. Now, they wouldn’t even be the most left-wing in their own caucus.
In a statement, state Democratic Party chairman Erik Raser-Schramm acknowledged the loss of the incumbents. “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,” he said. “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.”
For Clifford and the WFP, these wins are proof that the building blocks are falling into place for progressives to run more and more competitive challenges. “We’re excited looking forward to 2022 up and down the ticket,” she said. “Whether that be any other city or county office or other state legislative seats.”
Scarane’s loss is a sobering reminder that there are still some very steep hills to climb in order for the left to seize the levers of power, and even with these wins, maybe the gears aren’t turning fast enough to stave off environmental destruction and a full-throated fascist takeover. But the gears are turning. And if progressives knocking out longtime, powerful incumbents like Dave McBride can happen in a corporate behemoth like Delaware, it’s a good bet that it can happen anywhere.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Delaware’s minimum wage was $8.75.