The Trailer: The First State goes last

“I’m running because I think everybody deserves universal health care and guaranteed housing, Scarane told Mary Matthews, 57. “We need a $15 minimum wage.”

“At least!” Matthews said. “Just let me be able to find you after voting, though. That’s the problem.” Then the twist: Coons ain’t that way. I remember when he started in politics, and I used to live on 9th and Franklin, and I’d see him.”

Matthews took a handout and sounded open to supporting Scarane. The year’s final battle between the Democratic Party’s left and center is unfolding today in a state that has been hostile to the Trump-era GOP, emboldening activists who want “corporate” members of Congress replaced. It’s also a place where incumbents can shake every primary voter’s hand — and usually do, when the country isn’t in the grip of a pandemic. 

“In the middle of a campaign I literally meet thousands and thousands of people,” Coons said in an interview this weekend, after stopping by the city’s waterfront for an event recognizing Delaware’s Hispanic businesses. “On a typical Fourth of July, we’d go to five parades, where I’d shake thousands of hands. Epidemiologically, that’s a really bad idea right now.”

Scarane, a digital strategist who’s raised more than $300,000, is trying to build on the left’s four-year project of changing the Democratic Party, in a place where the movement is playing catch-up. Two years ago, activist and veteran Kerri Evelyn Harris challenged Sen. Thomas R. Carper, who had been running successful races statewide since 1976. She got 35 percent of the vote after spending less than $200,000, revealing that there was a base for left-wing politics in a state politically dominated by moderate suburbanites.

“There’s people who may have voted in that race had Kerri gained traction earlier, which is one reason we started earlier, said Scarane, who announced her bid last November. There’s definitely been a shift in favor of things like Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal among Democrats in this state.”

The nomination of Joe Biden, who endorsed Coons and appears on his literature, revealed the intraparty limits of that agenda. (“I like Coons the best, Biden told reporters Monday after casting an early vote.) The left saw 2018 as a building year in Delaware, finding potential voters and linking together volunteers who could at the very least win lower-turnout elections down the ballot. 

The Coons-Scarane race has not attracted the same national investments as the Carper-Harris race, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned in Wilmington and Justice Democrats lent staff and money for the primary challenge. Both have ignored this race, viewing others as more winnable, with the New York-based Working Families Party providing the biggest out-of-state muscle for Scarane. But the campaign itself claims to have tapped 1,200 volunteers, knocked 40,000 doors and made 900,000 calls using the Democratic voter file, while WFP has run digital ads against Coons as part of down-ballot investments in Delaware.

“Progressive donors, who used to support national Democrats but weren’t as active at the local level, have been activated,” said WFP’s Mid-Atlantic political director Vanessa Clifford, who co-managed the 2018 Harris campaign. “There weren’t many serious challengers before Kerri’s run two years ago.”

Scarane’s case against Coons is simple, even if it takes some explaining at the doors. Elected in 2010, Coons has voted reliably with Democrats on their major priorities but prioritized bipartisan work while rejecting the agenda associated with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Like other Justice Democrats, Scarane puts the blame on corporate PAC money — she refuses it — and argues that Coons would impede the party’s agenda if it took back power. Like Harris, she’s tried to make the race a referendum on the “Delaware Way,” in which business-friendly candidates trade their seats but never enact a liberal agenda.

“There are certain people who’ve bought into the line that bipartisanship is important, and we need a Congress that gets along,” Scarane said in an interview at her Wilmington home. “But there are other people who see the senator as quick to run to the other side instead of standing with us on the things Democrats should be fighting for.”

Coons was not around for the votes that became vulnerabilities for Carper, like the 2002 authorization of war in Iraq. Scarane has focused instead on his support for Senate supermajority rules and questioned his commitment to supporting liberal judges. For evidence, she cites both his reluctance to end the filibuster and his 2013 vote against Debo Adegbile, an attorney nominated by President Barack Obama to help lead the civil rights division of the Justice Department. 

Both questions, at the root, ask whether Coons would undermine a post-election liberal agenda. On the filibuster, Coons said he would see where events took the Senate, if Democrats took control and were trying to pass a Biden administration’s agenda. Step one was trying to form consensus, and step two was tbd.

“If Minority Leader McConnell — doesn’t that sound good? — uses the filibuster to block progress on any sort of legislative progress, then I’m not going to stand by and watch,” Coons said, citing immigration and gun safety as legislative priorities with Republican support. “I got to the Senate in 2011, and I’m not willing to see repeats of what he did to Obama, when we got nothing done for years.”

The Adegbile issue was trickier. When Democrats held the Senate, Coons joined every Republican and six other Democrats to block the Obama nominee. Adegbile had argued in a brief that Mumia Abu-Jamal, a death-row inmate convicted of killing a police officer, had been victimized by racially biased jury selection. The Fraternal Order of Police opposed Adegbile, and so did Coons. Reflecting on it now, Coons said, he should have worked harder to get to yes, but he said he was unable to square Adegbile’s record with his feelings over the killing of the officer.

“In the run-up to the vote, I had asked Debo if he would call the widow of Dan Faulkner and express some regret about how the whole issue had ended up. And he would not. And I may have overreacted to that. I’ve had long conversations with the civil rights community here to say that I recognize that he would have been a great assistant attorney general for civil rights.”

Unlike Carper, Coons will end the primary without debating his opponent, depriving Scarane of the chance to confront him directly on his votes. But like many other incumbents facing challengers this year, Coons emphasized his liberal bona fides, pitching himself as a Biden ally who could get things done, and he’s kept nearly every elected official in the party on his side. Bryan Townsend, a liberal state senator who won his seat by ousting the more moderate Democratic incumbent, argued that Coons’s strong reputation with Republican senators positioned him perfectly to be a liberal dealmaker in a Biden-run Washington.

“Whatever his portfolio positions are, they come along with a tremendously hard work ethic and an ability to articulate the issues in a way that appeals to a broad number of people,” Townsend said. “There’s a lot to be said for electing someone who is going to be able to hold the institution together from both sides, and make progress. I think in some ways he is taking undue heat for the idea that he isn’t ‘progressive’ on this or that issue or sufficiently progressive, because he’s focused on trying to figure out what can get done, as quickly as possible.”

While broadcasting confidence about the race, Coons has spent $4 million on his campaign, most of it on resources that can be turned around for the seven-week general election but much of it to beat Scarane. Two years ago, the left badly underestimated what it would take to beat Carper, as a surge of suburban turnout overwhelmed Harris’s 29,406 votes — thousands more than her campaign thought she needed. More than 100,000 Delawareans had requested mail ballots by the end of Monday, and both Scarane and Coons were expecting high turnout.

They were seeking their final votes in very different ways. On Saturday, Coons visited some outdoor parks where his campaign had rented space for socially distant canvassing and phone-banking. He marveled at Mack McKay, a 79-year-old supporter from his church, who had made tens of thousands of calls, and he gave one caller some advice for her voter conversations: She could mention that he was one of very few Democrats who supported a commission to study reparations.

On Friday, Scarane and her supporters were at the doors, having conversations that ranged from polite to promising. Voters had nothing negative to say about Coons, and some had recollections about meeting him. Scarane kept the pitch to the agenda she’d take to Washington, always starting by saying the system was “working great for the very wealthy” and seeing where the voter took it.

“It sounds like you’ve got some good ideas, and we need new blood in there,” said Randi Williams, a 59-year-old lab technician. With a Senate candidate on her doorstep, Williams turned to her chief electoral concern: How would Democrats defeat Donald Trump?

Reading list

Climate change and the 2020 race.

Why Republican legislators are resisting some changes that could get votes counted faster.

Dems in disarray.

The meaning of a crowded room in Nevada.

How can a mighty field program work with voters stuck at home?

In the states

The very, very long primary season, which started in Texas six months ago, comes to an end today in Delaware. 

Let’s be sticklers. In Louisiana and Georgia, all-party primaries will be held Nov. 3 — for every major office in the former, and for the seat held by Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) in the latter. But today’s contests in Delaware close the chapter on partisan primaries, and when the votes are in, nearly every two-party matchup in 49 states will be set.

Most attention will gravitate to the Coons-Scarane primary, by far the costliest race on the ballot. It’s not a rematch, as Coons has never faced a well-funded challenger and Scarane has never run for office before. But in some ways, it’s round two of the left’s Delaware project, an effort to create a beachhead in a place that has moved away from Republicans during Donald Trump’s presidency. 

That project began in 2018 with Kerri Evelyn Harris’s campaign, and the vote patterns today will reveal whether the left can make more gains with suburbanites. Harris did best in vote-rich New Castle County, winning 37 percent of the vote there, and ran strongest near Newark, home to the University of Delaware. She did worst in the outlying suburbs that vote Republican in general elections and worse still in Delaware’s more rural counties, Kent and Sussex. Coons starts out as a heavy favorite in all three counties, and the high number of absentee ballot request and early votes — factors not there in 2018 — suggest a high-turnout election.

After 2018, Delaware Republicans were locked out of power in the state, a punctuation mark on a long decline. They have not won the state’s sole seat in the House of Representatives since 2008, they have not won a Senate election since 1994, and they have been locked out of the governor’s office since 1988. The party’s recruitment this year doesn’t point to much optimism about reversing the decline, especially with a well-liked Joe Biden leading the Democratic ticket.

Still, Republicans will field candidates for every major office on the ballot this year. The state GOP has endorsed attorney Julianne Murray for governor, but she’s facing five opponents, including state Sen. Colin Bonini, who ran and lost to Democratic Gov. John Carney by 19 points in 2016. Republicans have also endorsed veteran Jim DeMartino and actor Lee Murphy, respectively, to take on the winner of the Democrats’ Senate primary and two-term Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester.

Primary upsets are possible in each race. DeMartino has been heavily outspent by Lauren Witzke, a pro-Trump activist who’s tweeted the slogan (“WWG1WGA”) of the QAnon conspiracy theory movement and has been adept at getting attention despite the steep odds against her. Though not endorsed by Trump, Witzke tweeted at the president and his son Donald Trump Jr. on Monday, claiming that a child had been egged “by hateful leftists” at one of her campaign events. The president’s son retweeted it. 

Murphy has raised less than $60,000 for his race, less than Witzke, but far more than his challenger, Matthew Morris. Still, Morris has gotten some attention by pitching himself as “the great American comeback story” — beating an opioid addiction to turn his life around.

Further down the ballot, the left is watching some local primaries closely, to see if they can repeat the breakthroughs they’ve been pulling off in other state races for city and legislative offices. The Working Families Party, which has endorsed Scarane, is backing two candidates for Wilmington’s city council, Colby Owens and Shané Darby. It’s also supporting four candidates in state legislative seats that are likely to go Democratic in November: Madinah Wilson-Anton, Larry Lambert, Marie Pinkney and Eric Morrison. If victorious, Pinkney could become the first Black gay woman in the state legislature; Sarah McBride, a transgender activist running for a safe state Senate seat in Wilmington, could become the state’s first trans legislator if she wins today’s primary.

Ad watch

American Chemistry Council, “Chris Coons.” In Delaware, Jessica Scarane’s main argument against Sen. Christopher A. Coons is that he’s too beholden to campaign donors, especially corporate PACs. One of those business interests has been running ads to boost Coons, asking (as all such ads must ask, to conform to campaign law) voters to “call Chris Coons today and tell him thanks” for backing a stimulus and changes to the supply chain.

Donald Trump, “Joe Biden Has Done Absolutely NOTHING for America in 47 Years!” The latest spot from the president’s campaign hands the microphone to a woman, never named, who says confidently that Joe Biden could “never handle the economy after covid.” Like many Trump ads, however, it focuses mostly on the economy before the pandemic, citing a headline about “women and minorities return[ing] to the workforce” that ran in The Washington Post 18 months ago.

Restoration PAC, “Just Begun.” A super PAC funded almost entirely by Illinois megadonor Richard Uihlein, Restoration has run a string of ads in the Midwest supporting local Republican candidates and making very different arguments against Joe Biden. One ad, running 120 seconds long, reintroduced voters to the plagiarism controversy that sunk Biden’s 1988 presidential bid. This one only features Biden in a montage of Democrats who “hate” and “spied on” Trump to encourage the president’s base that nothing can stop him. “They hate him because he’s unraveling their schemes and draining the swamp, and they despise all those who support his efforts,” a narrator says.

Poll watch

If Joe Biden was president, would he have handled the summer’s unrest better or worse? (Monmouth, 867 adults)

Better: 45%
Worse: 28%
Same: 23%

The Trump campaign’s “law and order” focus and some decline in the number of coronavirus cases have succeeded in raising the salience of a topic Trump prefers. The problem, here and in other polls, is that it’s not a clear winner for the president; it’s just less rocky for him than the covid-19 response. By a 37-point margin, down from a 42-margin in June, voters say that Trump’s response to protests has made the national situation worse; by a 17-point margin, more voters think Biden would have done a better job handling the protests. Democrats live in fear of another protest developing into a violent riot, but nothing so far has advanced the Trump message that unrest now is a preview of “Joe Biden’s America.”

Donald Trump: 50%
Joe Biden: 44%

New state polls have produced mostly good news for Biden; he’s ahead in every state carried by Hillary Clinton, and in every state Trump won last time by two points or less, the president is trailing. The green shoots are in CNN’s question about “sharpness,” a question that has been central to Trump’s campaigning even as the message of the week has changed. In both this poll and CNN’s poll of Wisconsin, Biden is leading overall and tied or better with Trump when asked who could best tackle crime. The only “issue” lead for the president comes when voters are asked about the candidate’s energy and mental strength. That could raise the salience of Biden’s Thursday town hall on the network and will definitely raise the stakes in the Sept. 29 debate: The perception of a slow and stumbling Biden is one thing keeping the president in the hunt.

Joe Biden: 50%
Donald Trump: 45%

Last week’s Florida polling spurred a Democratic panic over the Latino vote, a source of strength for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign that, per NBC/Marist, had moved back to the GOP. Biden’s campaign had not taken all the freelance advice offered by Latino strategists — Chuck Rocha, who helped Bernie Sanders win the Latino vote in the primaries, was among the critics — but it had been running Spanish-language ads for months, sparking fresh liberal worries that nothing was working for him. Monmouth’s poll finds a very different Florida electorate, almost identical to the 2016 exit polls, which had Clinton winning the state’s Latinos by 27 points. The Latino electorate has changed since then, with tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans settling in the state, and Democratic worries are less about converting conservative Cuban American voters than about preventing what happened in 2018: Republicans out-organizing them against the newest Latino voters, erasing Democratic gains elsewhere. Without a shift back, Biden’s resilience with older White voters gives him a lead.

Voting wars

Third-party candidates lost a string of legal challenges over the past week, encouraging Democrats who saw them as threats to winning some key states — something Republicans didn’t really dispute, as they helped the challengers.

In Wisconsin, the Green Party lost its ballot access, after the state Supreme Court affirmed that Greens botched their paperwork, failing to update the home address of vice-presidential nominee Angela Walker. That led to hundreds of petition signatures getting tossed, pushing the Greens off the state’s ballot for the first time in the national party’s history, but the court deemed it necessary to avoid complicating the sending of absentee ballots, which will begin this week. The Greens dawdled in filing their challenge, during which time county clerks began putting the ballots together.

“Even if we would ultimately determine that the petitioners’ claims are meritorious, given their delay in asserting their rights, we would be unable to provide meaningful relief without completely upsetting the election,” wrote the court’s majority, with one conservative joining the court’s three liberals. “We agree with the [Election] Commission that requiring municipalities to print and send a second round of ballots to voters who already received, and potentially already returned, their first ballot would result in confusion and disarray and would undermine confidence in the general election results.”

The court may still hear a challenge from Kanye West, who was removed from the ballot after evidence showed that the Republican attorney who delivered his paperwork filed it after the deadline. But the rationale provided by the court yesterday suggests that West won’t get a pass: Adding his name would force hundreds of thousands of printed ballots to be destroyed or rely on voters who receive them to send them back unused.

Greens have also been tossed from the Montana ballot, where Democrats saw their Senate candidate as a threat to Gov. Steve Bullock, and the Rhode Island ballot, where there’s little at stake but the party filed too few petition signatures. They are still on Pennsylvania‘s ballot, but Democrats have appealed a lower court’s decision to the state Supreme Court, where their party has elected a majority of the justices. The situation there is the reverse of the story in Wisconsin: Democrats represent the last impediment to the state sending out its historic number of absentee ballots.

The Greens’ presidential nominee, Howie Hawkins, has continued to campaign despite the ballot challenges. West, who has made only fitful campaign statements since declaring his bid 10 weeks ago, has said nothing about the lawsuits, delegating that work to attorneys. Unless he gets a respite from another court, the rapper will appear on just 12 ballots, three of them in states where he needed only to pay a fee for access. He’ll have been removed from nine state ballots that he applied for, with the reasons ranging from insufficient signatures to, in Arizona, his decision to register as a Republican in his adopted home state of Wyoming, voiding his attempt to appear on the ballot as an independent. Just two states where West made the ballot, Iowa and Minnesota, are being contested by both Trump and Biden.

Candidate tracker

One of the last weeks before the presidential debates began with a fight over climate change, and continued today with something Democrats aren’t actually fighting at all: the Trump administration-brokered “Abraham Accords,” under which two Arab nations that were not at war with Israel formalized their peaceful relations. 

“We’re here this afternoon to change the course of history,” Donald Trump said at a White House signing ceremony Tuesday afternoon. “After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East.” Joe Biden‘s campaign has talked little about the accords since initially congratulating the administration for them; the Trump campaign has focused less on the specifics of the accords than on a Norwegian politician nominating the president for a Nobel Peace Prize.

The day before, Trump visited California for a roundtable on the state’s response to forest fires while Biden, in Delaware, delivered a speech warning that a second Trump term would lead to policies that make climate change worse. Democrats seized on an exchange between the president and Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for natural resources.

“If we ignore that science and sort of put our head in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed together protecting Californians,” Crowfoot said. 

“Okay,” Trump said. “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.” 

“I wish science agreed with you,” Crowfoot said. 

“Well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” Trump said. The next morning, in a long interview with “Fox and Friends,” the president suggested that the lack of forest fires in wetter climates, like Austria’s, suggested that climate change was not making fires any worse.

Kamala D. Harris returned to California on Tuesday to survey the damage; Mike Pence campaigned in Wisconsin on Monday. Meanwhile, House Republicans released their “Commitment to America,” a brief but targeted list of policy goals they’ll act on if they win. It includes a Marshall Plan for Main Street ($200 billion of small-business loans), a five-year plan for universal broadband access, support for school choice, and a vague promise to shore up Medicare and Social Security.

Countdown

… three days until early voting begins in Minnesota
… 14 days until the first presidential debate
… 22 days until the vice-presidential debate
… 49 days until the general election
… 90 days until the Electoral College votes

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