Senators in supermarkets: Challenging incumbency and the “Delaware way”

Tara Lennon/THE REVIEW
Delaware’s small size and its influence from corporations lend to the idea of the “Delaware Way.”

Associate News Editor

For Delaware politicians, Amtrak is a rite of passage.

Former Vice President and former Sen. Joe Biden, former Rep. and current Governor John Carney, Rep. Lisa Blunt-Rochester, Sen. Tom Carper and Sen. Chris Coons have all embarked on this daily train ride from Wilmington, Delaware to Washington and back.

One can imagine this group of experienced and bipartisan-oriented group of senators sitting bundled together on their route home, exchanging small-talk with their constituents and stories of compromise with each other.

Jess Scarane is looking to bump Coons out of his train and Senate seat in the 2020 Democratic primary. Scarane, a self-proclaimed progressive, is running on a number of issues, such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, and on the idea that Coons’s centrist way of politicking does not serve the interests of Delawareans.

Scarane argues that Delawareans have not had a choice for this specific Senate seat in years. This seat belonged to Biden and two years after he became vice president, Coons was “hand-picked” to run for the seat. Historically, Scarane said, Democratic primary challenges have not been common in the state. In 2014, Coons ran unopposed for the nomination.

Delaware’s small size and its influence from corporations lend to the idea of the “Delaware Way,” where state politicians make decisions “in a bipartisan fashion behind closed doors,” according to The News Journal. The national spotlight on Joe Biden has resulted in a discovery of this tradition by outsiders, as the Los Angeles Times recently published an article and video discussing it.

“[Coons] has this tendency … to value this concept of bipartisanship and compromise that is not inherently flawed … ” Scarane said. “But what I regularly see done from him is compromise that’s done on the backs of the most vulnerable people.”

Scarane cited several reasons for her disappointment with Coons’s legislative record. She said Coons voted for more than 80 of Trump’s appointees for the federal judiciary, voted for Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, and “legislates in favor of corporations.”

For a smaller candidate like Scarane with low name recognition, it can be difficult to gain support. She said a candidate must pay $10,000 to get his or her name on the ballot and in a small state like Delaware, politicians often know their constituents.

“Some people will say to me, ‘You’re going against someone so popular, I see him at the grocery store … ’” Scarane said. “But that’s not the experience of every Delawarean.”

Running into high school friends at restaurants and growing up finding Delaware politicians in the grocery store is not the experience of Scarane, who came to Delaware 10 years ago and now works in Wilmington for a digital marketing agency called The Archer Group. Scarane recently completed her MBA at the university’s Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Scarane said that she built her campaign on a group of people that worked on progressive campaigns during the past four or five years.

Kerri Harris, current committeewoman for the state Democratic party, led a campaign in 2018, primarying incumbent Carper. Although she did not win, she was optimistic about the progress her campaign made.

“The campaign … brought together these like-minded folks and we built … an incredible, incredible movement because of it,” Harris said.

Harris said some of the challenges in her campaign stemmed from finances, voter’s fear of seeing someone like themselves in places of power and the high recognition and close relationships built by incumbents.

“[Carper] has been in our state for 42 years, up and down the state, always in statewide office, people knew him,” Harris said. “And to Senator Carper’s credit, he wasn’t someone absent. He knows peoples names, he’s had convos with them. It’s hard, in a small state, to not have these feelings … with someone that has been so present.”

Coons also actively maintains a presence in Delaware. For example, Coons recently joined Lucy Meyer, a Special Olympics medalist, on visits to several Delaware high schools. Coons’s approval rating, according to the university’s Center for Political Communication, is 73%.

Harris said she understands the challenges Scarane may be facing in her campaign and she believes in the power of the primary in making the Democratic Party stronger.

“[The primary] injects new ideas,” Harris said. “It makes it so incumbents don’t feel like their seat is guaranteed. It makes them work harder and listen more keenly to what their constituents are asking of them. Senator Coons, I think that he is becoming more aware of what the people of Delaware want because of this primary, and so I think that it’s going to be a race that hopefully opens the eyes of Delaware.”

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