Incumbency as a member of Delaware’s state House or Senate often comes with the expectation that any member of your party hoping to succeed you will “wait their turn” until you decide to move on. But this year’s primary elections include several races in which veteran Democratic lawmakers are being challenged by political newcomers who think it’s time for a change.
Tuesday’s primary elections feature seven races in which Democratic incumbents face challengers. That’s more than double the three races in 2018 in which incumbent Democrats were challenged, with one losing.
Many of the challengers are younger candidates who have been inspired by the growing progressive movement within the Democratic Party on the national level and don’t believe incumbent lawmakers have done enough to address issues ranging from criminal justice reform and climate change to gay rights and a $15 minimum hourly wage.
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Among the lawmakers facing intraparty opposition is Sen. President Pro Tem David McBride, who was first elected to the Senate in 1980 after spending two years in the House. He has not had a primary challenger since 1986.
“I’m not one who necessarily believes in waiting your turn,” said McBride’s primary opponent, social worker Marie Pinkney. “That mentality is one of the reasons why we have legislators like my opponent and others who have gone unchallenged for decades.”
“I’m not going to allow party tradition to stand in the way of doing what I want to do, which is help people in the most effective way possible,” added Pinkney, who has been particularly critical of McBride for “locking up” gun-control legislation last year.
McBride, who did not respond to email and phone messages requesting an interview, declared last year that several gun-control measures, including bans on certain semi-automatic firearms and large capacity magazines, would not be coming out of a committee he leads because support among fellow Democrats was “almost nonexistent.”
State Sen. Bruce Ennis of Smyrna is facing a Democratic primary challenge for the first time since 1984, two years after he was elected to the state House. Ennis, a retired state trooper and one of the more conservative Democrats in the Senate, has two primary opponents.
Similarly, two Democratic challengers, including former legislative aide Madinah Wilson-Anton, are trying to unseat Rep. John Viola, who has represented a Newark-area district for 22 years. Wilson-Anton could become the first Muslim elected to the General Assembly.
Democratic Rep. Earl Jaques, also of Newark, is facing his first primary challenge in 10 years.
“I hope there’s room in my party for moderates like myself,” he said.
Jaques’ primary opponent, Eric Morrison, is one of several challengers, including Pinkney and Wilson-Anton, who have been endorsed by Progressive Democrats for Delaware.
“A lot of these guys have been in office for 20, 30 years, and not much is changing,” said PDD President Jordyn Pusey, who narrowly lost a Democratic county council primary in 2018. “There’s a lot more movement around new faces, new ideas.”
Morrison believes the primary contests are not about labels like “progressive” and “moderate,” but more about what voters want.
“It’s good for democracy that people in office should be challenged, and that voters should have a choice,” he said.
“There always is a lot of talk, but as far as action, we don’t see a lot of action,” Morrison said.
Morrison, who has performed as a female impersonator for many years and hosted a drag show fundraiser for his campaign, could become the first gay person elected to the Delaware General Assembly. Jaques, meanwhile, apologized last year for “insensitive” comments about Morrison’s fundraiser and has been criticized by progressive Democrats for his positions on issues including gay rights and abortion.
“It’s not that he’s just a moderate Democrat, it’s that he’s not even holding up the party platform,” Pusey said. “He did not support gay marriage, and that’s something the Democratic Party supports wholeheartedly.”
Jaques questions whether moving the party further left might narrow its acceptability among the electorate.
“It does worry me to some degree,” he said. “I don’t think we should lean that far over. ... We need to be a little bit more in the middle of the road.”
Jesse Chadderdon, executive director of the Delaware Democratic Party, said primaries are “just an inevitability” in solid-blue Delaware, where Democrats control the governor’s office, the House and Senate, and all statewide elective offices.
“To win elective office in a heavily Democratic area, you have to defeat someone in your own party,” he noted, adding that the party is “as healthy as I’ve ever seen it.”
“Certainly, progressive activists have a loud and important voice in our party ... but there are a lot of diverse voices in our party,” Chadderdon said. “We think that’s a good thing.”
Chadderdon also said the primary elections shouldn’t be seen as just “a two-way tug of war” between moderates and progressives.
“It’s about robust discussion about public policy,” he said.