Why are there so many primary battles on the ballot this year?
There are more primary challenges on the ballot next week than usual, especially on the Democratic side of the political fence.
Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt takes a look at whether the culture of primarying in the First State is changing.
This year 24 incumbent candidates in Delaware, from Levy Court up to U.S. Senator, face primary challenges. That’s more than in 2016, or 2012, or any similar election in the last twenty years.
Democrats have kept a grip on the state’s Congressional seats, Governor’s office and both chambers of the General Assembly for more than a decade now.
Does that encourage a culture of challenging a sitting incumbent? Or does the Delaware Way still keep challenges within the Democratic party at bay?
Middletown resident Terrell Williams is a veteran running to unseat State Sen. Bruce Ennis, a moderate Democrat and retired state police officer who has been in the General Assembly for nearly 30 years.
“One of the reasons that prompted me to run was I looked at Sen. Ennis’ legislative record, and I saw that it was short on substance when it comes to dealing with issues that impact minorities and when it comes to dealing with police reform,” said Williams.
Kyra Hoffner is also going up against Ennis in next week’s primary. She’s a retired mortgage originator and active advocating for issues like marijuana legalization in recent years.
“In 2018 people started asking me to run and I just didn’t think I was ready to run. I was like no, what kind of experience do I have to do that?” said Hoffner. “Then over the last two years, I was like, why not me? I care about the community, I’m already out there volunteering for them, I’m advocating for the laws they want passed, so why not me?”
Williams and Hoffner both say the district has changed over the last few decades, so its political representation should change too. Williams’ strategy is to turn out new voters. But voter registration there has stayed roughly flat for the past decade.
“As District 14 begins to gentrify, and becomes more of a suburbia than a rural community, I thought now was the most opportune time to run,” said Williams. “I also realized that Sen. Ennis’ conservative views wouldn’t necessarily mesh well with people in the millennial generation—my generation”
Ennis did not respond to a request for comment.
Williams sees himself as the more appropriate choice.
“I think I am much more progressive, much more inclusive,” Williams said. “I also bring that element of diversity.”
He’s not alone. This year’s slate of Democratic primary challengers for General Assembly seats reflects national trends. Most General Assembly challengers are people of color, women, LGBTQ or religious minorities. Most identify as more progressive than the incumbent.
Larry Lambert is running his second primary campaign for the 7th Representative District, currently held by Democrat Ray Seigfied.
“There is no excuse for our minimum wage being so far behind the national trends,” said Lambert. “It is time for more progressive leadership. It’s time for bolder leadership.”
Eric Morrison seeks to unseat longtime State Representative Earl Jaques in the 27th district. He thinks the culture of primarying Democratic incumbents is changing in Delaware.
“Especially in very recent years, I think we see a lot of Democrats who are frustrated with the status quo, who are frustrated with Democrats who’ve been in office for decades,” said Morrison.
Paul Brewer, research director at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication, says more primary challenges are expected when any party maintains control.
“Delaware has pretty clearly over the past decade been a solidly blue state,” said Brewer. “You have to search hard to find cases where a Republican won state-wide office. So the Democratic primary at the state-wide level is where all the action is. That's also true certainly not for all Assembly seats, but for a lot of them as well.”
Delaware Democratic Party Executive Director Jesse Chadderdon says over the past generation, Democrats have registered more voters statewide than Republicans.
“Just as it’s been traditional in Wilmington that you’ve seen a lot of primaries for City offices, because Wilmington has traditionally been a Democratic stronghold, as additional parts of suburban New Castle County have become strong for Democrats, it’s just natural that you’ll see more competition for those seats,” said Chadderdon.
But the need to fend off Republicans was not the only thing that discouraged Democratic primary challenges, says Eugene Young, president of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League.
“I’ve heard many stories going back to thirty, forty, fifty years ago where people did not necessarily just decide to run, they were picked to run,” said Young. “There was a machine in the standpoint of, if you don’t have the support of so-and-so in the group of individuals, then there’s no way that you can break through.”
“Now,” he added, "there’s a way, and increasingly more of a way to break through and get through these primaries. It’s getting better, but it still has a ways to go.”
UD’s Paul Brewer says Delaware politics have been dominated by moderate, business-friendly Democrats who work their way up through the ranks.
“The old idea of the Delaware Way was that there was kind of a collegial relationship between parties and within parties, where the establishment basically decided who ran,” said Brewer. “The competition was friendly and within certain bounds. You had people like Mike Castle, … like Tom Carper. Often they would trade offices—not like make a deal and trade offices—but they would go from one office to another.”
It’s not that there were no primary challenges in the past. But Brewer says they look different now. He points to progressive Kerri Evelyn Harris, who challenged U.S. Senator Tom Carper in 2018, and Jessica Scarane, going up against U.S. Senator Chris Coons in next week’s primary.
“There’s definitely a stronger ideological divide there, where they’re clearly in this new progressive movement in the party,” said Brewer. “They might have endorsements from Justice Democrats, endorsements from people like [U.S. Rep.]Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. … They talk about things like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, defunding the police.”
Brewer says historically, parties in Delaware played favorites—maybe not overtly, but in ways like fundraising or having informal conversations about who runs. That might be changing.
“Over the decades, for both parties, the party control over nominations has gotten weaker and weaker,” said Brewer. “Decades ago, you had the proverbial smoke-filled rooms, where party establishment could easily dictate who the party nominee was going to be.”
Jesse Chadderdon of the Delaware Democratic Party says they try to be fair.
“What we try not to do is take resources away from one candidate and give them to another or to pick winners and losers when it comes to actual resources,” he said.
Chadderdon and current party chairman Erik Raser Schramm have been in their roles since 2017. In that time, Chadderdon says they’ve made some changes.
“One of the biggest things we offer as a state party is access to our voter file,” he said. “In the past, I’ve heard cases of candidates in primaries who don’t get endorsed losing access to that. As a leadership team we’ve changed the policy and have ensured that if you buy into the party’s voter file, that you get to keep that all way through the primary.”
Chadderdon says the Delaware Democratic Party is also careful now to keep all outreach to voters “candidate agnostic” before the primary election.
Still, the party’s state executive committee can endorse state-wide candidates, and county, local or representative district committees have the option of endorsing down-ballot candidates.
“Endorsements are one of the main traditional functions of state parties,” said Chadderdon. “Because we don’t tie a lot of resources to endorsements, despite doing them, we don’t feel like we’re penalizing the unendorsed candidate.”
Chadderdon admits the Democratic caucuses in the General Assembly help fund the state party’s efforts. But he says the party does not help General Assembly candidates fundraise for primaries.
Still, some challengers, like Kyra Hoffner, think things remain slanted in favor of incumbents.
“It’s not accessible to primary an incumbent,” she said. “They don’t make it easy to welcome newcomers into the system. They make it really hard.”
Terrell Williams describes running against Ennis, who has an established base of support in the 14th Senate District, as like “running into a brick wall.” Williams sees party leaders as heavy-handed — as he puts it, appointing established elected officials without scrutiny.
“For new people coming into the race or entering the political environment, it’s an uphill battle,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a neutral playing field where you get to express your ideas and debate a person and try to present and make your case for who’s the better candidate. It’s more like, you wait your turn.”
Chadderdon says he saw some past primary challenges as unproductive and damaging, though he considers them inevitable as the party tries to expand its base.
“We just can’t simply expect that folks are going to knock doors for us, and volunteer for us, and donate to our candidates, and then universally stop short of wanting to run for office themselves,” he said.
But others, like Eugene Young of the Wilmington Urban League, see primary challenges as healthy.
“In order for a democracy to stay fresh, you need people to challenge in primaries, and for people in elected office to show the great work that they’ve done … and let the people decide,” he said.
Young ran for Mayor of Wilmington in 2016. He was part of an eight-way Democratic primary and came in second — fewer than two hundred votes behind Mike Purzycki.
“While I came up short, I never had the opinion that, I wish there were just less candidates,” he said. “I think that having candidates are a good option for the people.”
As he heads into his second primary race for State Representative, Larry Lambert agrees.
“I believe that primaries are a beautiful thing,” he said. “Primaries are democracy at work.”
Delaware’s state primary election is Tuesday, September 15.