Six primary races to watch in the Delaware General Assembly

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal

More than half of the General Assembly's 62 seats are on the ballot this year, and 11 include battles in the September primary.

This fall will be one of the first times that some decadeslong incumbents, who aren't used to having challengers, have ever had to fight for their seats. Most primary races are happening in New Castle County, where Democrats hold the vast majority of Statehouse seats and are trying to usurp the remaining Republicans.

The results of those primaries, which are typically considered the real contest in Delaware's Democratic-held districts, could show whether Delaware's majority party electorate is craving an increasingly progressive lawmaking body or whether the state remains dominantly moderate.

VOTERS GUIDE:Delaware Online database gives details, contacts of General Assembly members

Meanwhile, two lawmakers have announced retirement this year, leaving two seats wide open for newcomers from both parties and guaranteeing at least two new faces in the Legislature.

Dover resident Thomas Moore walks in front of Legislative Hall at the Delaware State Capitol, which sit quiet on Monday, March 30 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The races haven't just shed light on policy disagreements over police reform, gun control and other controversial issues. One pair of candidates have battled over religion and sexuality, while another race rages between a former government staffer and her old boss.

One candidate pledges to make history as the first openly transgender state senator in the U.S., while challengers in other districts say it's simply time for new blood in the bill-drafting process.

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These Statehouse races aren't the only ones worth watching. Delaware Online/The News Journal has created an online voter guide for statewide and local races, including Wilmington City Council, the General Assembly and county councils. The voter guide includes more information about the candidates and their platform.

First foe in 34 years

Marie Pinkney, a social worker at Christiana Hospital, is challenging four-decade incumbent Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk's Nest, who hasn't had a primary opponent since 1986.

Marie Pinkney is running against Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk's Nest, for his seat in Senate District 13.

The New Castle County district stretches from Minquadale to Bear. Like other progressive newcomers, Pinkney is offering herself as a fresh option for voters who usually don't have a luxury of choices on the Democratic ballot.

McBride's top-ranking position allows him to control the Senate's schedule, making him the most powerful lawmaker in his chamber. Pinkney is hoping that some of McBride's recent decisions, including his blocking of three gun control bills from getting a floor vote in 2019, will work against him on Sept. 15.

Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk's Nest, speaks on the Delaware Senate floor on Jan. 15, 2020.

Whoever wins will go on to face Republican Alexander Homich in November.

Representative faces former staffer

In one of Delaware's more awkward races of 2020, Rep. John Viola, D-Newark, is facing a primary challenge from one of his former staffers.

Rep. John Viola, D-Newark, attends a press conference on Jan. 21, 2020 on the state's clean water plan for the next fiscal year.

The Newark district sits east of the University of Delaware near Bear.

Madinah Wilson-Anton worked for Viola as a legislative aide before deciding to run against him. She's one of a handful of progressive candidates trying to unseat longtime moderate Democrats and shake up the General Assembly to tip the scales toward progressive agenda items such as aggressive environmental protection and higher wages.

Madinah Wilson-Anton is a  Democratic candidate in Delaware House District 26, which covers parts of Southern Newark and Bear.

She's also up against Gabriel Olawale Adelagunja, chair of the Delaware African and Caribbean Affairs Commission, in the Democratic primary.

Wilson-Anton helped organize peaceful protests against police brutality in Delaware this summer following the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while he was handcuffed on the ground. She's pushing for increased transparency and accountability in Delaware police departments.

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Viola supports increased training in police departments related to issues such as crisis intervention and de-escalation.

Drag queen comment fuels race

Another progressive is taking on a moderate Democrat, Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, who before this has had only one primary challenge since being elected in 2008.

Unlike many of his fellow progressive challengers, Eric Morrison, a human resources project manager at JPMorgan Chase, has been reaching Glasgow voters by knocking on doors while wearing a mask and social distancing.

Democratic candidate for State Representative in the 27th District Eric Morrison goes door knocking on Terra Drive in Newark Tuesday night. Morrison says he would be Delaware's first openly gay to represent in the General Assembly if elected.

Morrison insists his style so far has been safe and voters have largely been welcoming, but his refusal to stay home is an apparent testament to the aggressive nature of his campaign.

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Local analysts and Democratic Party operatives point to door-knocking as one of the most effective ways to unseat a longtime incumbent who has a head-start due to political backing and name recognition. They say the coronavirus pandemic has hurt challengers because many of them have pivoted to canvassing from home out of safety concerns.

State Rep. Earl Jaques

The race had a rocky start last fall when Jaques criticized Morrison, who is gay, for hosting a fundraiser in drag. Jaques apologized for those comments after Delaware Online/The News Journal published them in a profile about the contest.

Morrison is quick to point out Jaques' voting "no" on a 2013 bill to allow same-sex marriage in Delaware, and abstaining from voting on a 2017 bill to ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors.

Former officer faces crowded field

Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, a moderate Democrat and former state policeman, has been in office since 1982 and has no intention of leaving his seat. 

But a crowd of Democrats and Republicans are trying to take his job to represent the blue district that straddles New Castle and Kent counties and is filled with hunters and gun rights supporters.

Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, speaks on the Delaware Senate floor on Jan. 15, 2020.

Ennis' Democratic challengers are Terrell Williams, a Middletown attorney whose platform includes increased police accountability and transparency, and Kyra Hoffner, a retired mortgage originator who volunteers for organizations that lobby for progressive law changes such as marijuana legalization.

Whoever wins will face one of two Republicans who are squaring off in their own primary: Craig Pugh, a boatman in Leipsic, and Terrance Lee Baker, the director of a veteran advocacy nonprofit called Veterans Aimed Towards Awareness.

Ennis is known for voting against progressive law changes such as gun control and co-chairs the Delaware Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus that lobbies for gun and hunting rights.

State senator endorses LGBTQ activist

Democrats and Republicans have lined up to replace Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington North, who is retiring after more than four decades of lawmaking. McDowell first took office in 1976.

Sarah McBride

He's endorsed activist Sarah McBride in the Democratic primary to take over his open Senate seat, which represents Claymont, Bellefonte and Trolley Square in Wilmington. McBride is in a primary race against Joseph McCole, a substitute teacher from Bellefonte who challenged McDowell in the 2016 primary and got 29% percent of the vote.

Whoever wins the Sept. 15 primary will face Steve Washington, a Republican and special education teacher from Wilmington, in the Nov. 3 general election.

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McBride, a Wilmington native, is the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign and in 2016 became the first openly transgender person to speak at the Democratic National Convention. Should she win, McBride would be the first openly transgender state senator in the country.

Joseph McCole, a Democrat, is running for Delaware Senate District 1.

MCBRIDE ANNOUNCED LAST SUMMER:Transgender activist Sarah McBride is running for Delaware Senate

With more money in her war chest, campaign signs peppered throughout her district and advantageous connections in Delaware's political realm, McBride is the likely front-runner. In addition to McDowell, she has been endorsed former Gov. Jack Markell, U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, the Delaware Democratic Party and state House lawmakers whose districts overlap with the Senate district.

Middletown's gaggle of candidates

An open seat in Middletown has attracted a small crowd of candidates who hope to succeed Rep. Quinton Johnson, D-Middletown, who announced during a House vote in late June that he won't be seeking re-election after his term ends this fall.

Rep. Quinton Johnson, (D) Dist. 8, at work Sunday, June 30, 2019, during the last hours of the session at Legislative Hall in Dover.

Since his announcement, three Democrats have lined up to replace him: former legislative staffer and former Bayard School teacher Sherae’a Moore, attorney Matthew Wallace Powell and New Castle County Vo-Tech Board of Education President Yvette Santiago.

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Whoever wins the district, which covers Middletown, will go on to face Republican Dan Zitofky, a former New York City policeman and U.S. Navy veteran.

Ultimately, one of the four will end up replacing Johnson, who has served in the House for 12 years and co-chairs the committee that drafts the operating budget.

Other lawmakers facing challengers this year

Five other lawmakers are either facing a primary from a member of their party or will watch several candidates from the opposite party fight for their seat this month.

Three Democrats — attorney Kyle Evans Gay, social services administrator Denise Bowers and Eric Levin, who runs a K-12 tutoring service in Wilmington — are facing off in the hopes of unseating Sen. Cathy Cloutier, R-Heatherbrooke, who is considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans in New Castle County.

In the district that surrounds Trolley Square, Rep. Gerald Brady, D-Wilmington, is fighting to keep his seat against education activist Amy Soloman.

In Claymont, corporate banker and progressive Democrat Larry Lambert is trying to unseat moderate Rep. Raymond Seigfried, D-Brandywine Hundred.

In one of Delaware's northernmost districts, Democrat Keith James is running against Rep. Sean Matthews, D-Talleyville.

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In Kent County, Democrats Adewunmi Ade Kuforiji and Bob Haynes are running against one another in the hopes to unseat Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Camden-Wyoming, in the general election.

Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2281 or You can also follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.