Feuds, morphing parties and history-makers: What's at stake in Delaware's primary election

Watching Delaware's Joe Biden run as the Democratic nominee against President Donald Trump isn't the only reason the 2020 elections matter for the First State.

Tuesday's primary features other important contests, especially in areas where Democrats' advantages mean the primary winner will almost automatically win in November.

Seats on all three county councils are up for grabs, and a divided crowd of Democrats are vying for Wilmington's mayoral and City Council seats.

The results of these races could be a bellwether for how Delaware politics is changing in both major parties.

VOTERS GUIDE: See who is on your personal ballot and find information about them

Candidates from both parties have lined up to unseat Gov. John Carney in his reelection bid. The incumbent has only one challenger from his own party, but a six-person crowd of Republicans has emerged. They are going after Carney on Delawareans' lost income and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Candidates from both parties have lined up to unseat Gov. John Carney in his re-election bid.

One of those candidates is Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, who failed to defeat Carney in 2016. He was the perceived front-runner before the Delaware GOP endorsed Julianne Murray, a lawyer from Georgetown.

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Scott Walker, who won the statewide Republican primary for the U.S. House in 2018 and has since been disavowed by both parties after leaning on insults against his opponent, is also on the ballot.

Failed 2018 congressional candidate Scott Walker, now a Republican, has erected hand-made signs across the state for his 2020 gubernatorial campaign.

Insurance Commissioner Trinidad Navarro who, after facing two harassment lawsuits during his first term, is facing a primary from Democrat Kayode Abegunde.

In the race for U.S. Senate, progressive millennial Jessica Scarane is challenging incumbent Chris Coons, a bid reminiscent of U.S. Senate candidate Kerri Evelyn Harris, who failed to unseat incumbent Sen. Tom Carper in 2018.

U.S. SENATE PRIMARY:Not all politicians are the same — just look at Delaware's U.S. Senate race

Republicans are also squaring off for the Senate seat, highlighting a rift forming in the Delaware GOP between establishment picks such as U.S. Senate candidate Jim DeMartino and his Trumpian opponent, Lauren Witzke.

Sen. Chris Coons speaks during a gathering with protesters Sunday, May 31, 2020, outside of the Louis L. Redding City/Council Building in Wilmington.

U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester isn't facing a challenge from the left in September, but two Republicans are squaring off for the seat: endorsed candidate Lee Murphy, an actor who lost the 2018 Republican U.S. House primary, and Matthew Morris, a furniture salesman and convicted felon.

U.S. HOUSE PRIMARY:Endorsed Republican squares off against newcomer in contentious Delaware U.S. House primary

The winner of some of the statewide Republican primaries could prove whether Scott Walker's win in 2018 was just a fluke or whether the state's GOP electorate prefers unconventional newcomers over traditional Republicans.

Candidate for U.S. Senate Lauren Witzke speaks during the 'Restore our Historical Monuments Protest' Tuesday, August 25, 2020, at Rodney Square in Wilmington.

A rift is also growing in the state Democratic Party between established moderates and progressives.

In New Castle County, primary races tend to be the real contest in Democratic-controlled legislative districts. This year, a growing number of younger, progressive outsiders in the state feel emboldened to take on yearslong Democratic incumbents, reflecting a national, increasing fissure in the party where challengers lean further left than the established politicians they want to unseat. 

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That's the case in several of this year's 11 Statehouse primaries, where established incumbents are having to fight for their seat for the first time in years. While local analysts and party organizers suspect the coronavirus pandemic has hurt the progressive movement because it's prevented challengers from meeting voters face to face, the results of these races could show whether voters are craving an increasingly progressive lawmaking body.

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A few more progressives in the Statehouse could be just enough to tip the scales toward passing controversial bills that would legalize marijuana, raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and enact stricter gun laws. It could also heighten the chances of aggressive environmental protection and increased police accountability and transparency.

U.S. Senate candidate Jessica Scarane briefly speaks to a group of about 50 gathered to protest against mass incarceration of Black people in Wilmington on Friday, July 17, 2020.

The vast majority of these seats have an incumbent who has no intention of leaving, opening the doors for voters to decide whether they want to keep their current representation or try something new.

Two lawmakers — budget committee co-chairs Rep. Quinton Johnson, D-Middletown, and Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington — are retiring, guaranteeing at least two new faces in the General Assembly.

While most non-incumbents in Statehouse races say it's simply time for new blood in the state's lawmaking body that enjoys no term limits, a few candidates promise to make history.

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.

That includes Sarah McBride, who is campaigning for McDowell's open seat and would be the first openly transgender state senator elected to any statehouse in the country. It also includes Eric Morrison, who is running against Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow. He would be the first openly gay man to serve in Delaware's Statehouse.

City feuds heating up

In Wilmington, warring factions of Democrats are battling to take on long-standing neighborhood inequities and movements for racial equality.

The next mayor and council president will inherit a tighter budget due to the pandemic amid calls for greater spending on social services to address rising violent crime and opportunities for city youth.

WILMINGTON PRIMARY ELECTION:With just days left, Wilmington primaries reach new levels of combat

While Mayor Mike Purzycki touts growth and improvements made over the past four years, both his challengers are running on slogans of “people over property,” promising to prioritize the city’s working- and middle-class neighborhoods above a rebounding downtown and a gleaming Riverfront commercial district.

Mayoral primary candidate and Wilmington City Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter, left, Current Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, center, and Mayoral primary candidate and former Wilmington city councilman Justen Wright.

One of his opponents, City Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter, has already been engaged in an escalating, yearslong conflict with Purzycki over her authorities in office and would be Wilmington's first female mayor if she won. The other, former Councilman Justen Wright, took several opportunities during a city debate to attack Purzycki.

'TALE OF TWO CITIES:' Wilmington mayor will have to win over more of divided city

Purzycki won the last Democratic primary with only 23% of votes cast — some of them Republicans who had switched parties — in a crowded field. To keep his seat, the developer-connected mayor from the wealthy Highlands will have to win over a larger share of voters in a majority-Black city where a quarter of residents live in poverty.

For his part, he’s defended his administration’s investments in parks and recreational centers in low-income neighborhoods.

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Whoever becomes mayor, the next administration will need to contend with whoever wins the presidency of the City Council in order to get their agenda passed.

Purzycki has blamed a City Council marked by infighting for repeatedly blocking his signature anti-blight effort, which he is pushing to hold landlords accountable for allowing poor renters to live in squalor.  

Wilmington City Council President Hanifa Shabazz in the City Council chambers in 2018.

In the race for council president, incumbent Hanifa Shabazz and her challenger, the Jones-Potter-allied Trippi Congo, both have courted controversies and sit on opposite sides of factions starkly divided over whether or not they support Purzycki’s agenda.

Both are now also mired in a fight over Congo’s 2nd District seat, which Shabazz booted him out of when he admitted to moving from his district during the primary.

County seats in play

The race to lead Delaware’s most populous county pits incumbent Matt Meyer, a former lawyer, businessman and teacher, against political newcomer Maggie Jones, a longtime state employee from Middletown. 

Two Democrats – Ciro Poppiti, New Castle County’s register of wills, and Monique Johns, a workshop facilitator from Middletown – are challenging New Castle County Council President Karen Hartley-Nagle as she seeks a second term.

COUNTY EXECUTIVE RACE:Calling for more transparency, community involvement, Jones challenges Meyer for county executive

Meanwhile, Bill Bell is the only member of New Castle County Council facing a primary challenger, from army officer Kevin Caneco. Bell has represented District 12, which encompasses much of the Middletown-Odessa area, since 2004. Much of New Castle County’s development growth over the past several years has been concentrated in Middletown, leading some residents to believe a slow down or change in the approach to development is necessary.

New Castle County District 12 Councilman Bill Bell

New Castle County Clerk of the Peace Kenneth Boulden is retiring, leaving the race between his deputy Lisa Darrah and businesswoman Aja Ajavon to take over the job that oversees the issuance of marriage licenses.

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In Kent County, Democrats Joanne Masten and Morgan Russum are in a race to replace retiring Levy Court President Brooks Banta in the northernmost district straddling New Castle County. Either candidate, if they're able to beat Republican Doug Chervenak in the general election, would be the only woman serving on the seven-person body.

In Sussex County, three Republicans are running to replace retiring Sussex County Councilman Sam Wilson in the district that includes Georgetown and Greenwood. Those candidates are Lisa Hudson Briggs; Cynthia Green; and the outgoing councilman's son, Robert Wilson.

Sussex County Councilman I.G. Burton is facing a primary from Republican Mark Schaeffer for the district that covers Milton and the northern half of the Delaware beaches, including Lewes.

Also in Sussex County, Councilman I.G. Burton is facing a primary from Republican Mark Schaeffer for the district that covers Milton and the northern half of the Delaware beaches, including Lewes.

Sarah Gamard covers state government and politics. Reach her at (302) 324-2281. Brandon Holveck is a trending news reporter focused on local business and breaking news. Reach him at bholveck@delawareonline.com. Jeanne Kuang covers Wilmington. Reach her at jkuang@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2476. Follow her on Twitter at @JeanneKuang.