Centrist Senator Chris Coons Faces Primary Challenge in Delaware

Jessica Scarane, a tech industry veteran, has filed to face Coons in the primary.


Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

Chris Coons, the corporate-friendly Delaware senator and Joe Biden ally, will get a primary challenger in 2020, according to a Federal Election Commission filing.

Jessica Scarane filed her statement of candidacy last Thursday and will formally announce her candidacy on Monday. Scarane spent most of her career at tech startups; she’s currently director of business strategy at the Archer Group, a digital design and marketing company. She also serves as the board president of a statewide nonprofit in Wilmington called Girls Inc., which provides mentorship and support for girls 6-18. Scarane graduated from Syracuse University in 2006.

The primary will be held September 15, 2020, giving Scarane plenty of time to gain recognition in the small state. She plans to run to Coons’s left in the primary.

In taking on Coons, Scarane is attempting to disrupt a comfortable political establishment in Delaware. Coons, who took over Biden’s seat in the Senate in 2011, is a relative newcomer in a state whose political figures win office and typically just stick around to service the chemical companies, bankers, pharmaceuticals, and on-paper corporations that dominate there.

Last year, Tom Carper faced a rare intraparty challenge from Kerri Evelyn Harris; the one debate Harris and Carper held, which was only live-streamed and not broadcast on local television, was the first Democratic primary debate in the state’s history. Harris ended up garnering one-third of the vote, but lost handily to Carper, a fixture in the First State who has held statewide elected office since 1976.

Coons does not have that history with Delaware voters, though his profile matches Carper’s pretty well. Coons has earned praise for his ability to work across the aisle; in 2018, Politico called him “the GOP’s favorite Democrat.” His magnanimity toward Republicans included famously changing his vote to “present” to allow the nomination of Mike Pompeo for secretary of state to advance, when a Republican colleague was absent from the committee meeting. He’s been a leader in seeking to preserve the legislative filibuster, and has expressed regret for changing the filibuster rules on nominations. This also fits with Coons’s desire for bipartisanship.

But more troubling has been Coons’s willingness to side with conservative priorities.

Coons and Carper both voted for the only major bipartisan legislation passed in the Trump era, a bank deregulation bill that has triggered a wave of consolidation within the industry. Coons has been a surprisingly reliable vote for many of Trump’s slew of right-wing judicial nominees, including a handful who refused to explicitly support the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. His stance has drawn controversial criticism from the liberal judicial organization Demand Justice.

In September, Coons quickly agitated for military action against Iran on Fox News, in response to an attack on a Saudi oil refinery. He later walked back his statement. But Coons has previously shown blind spots in foreign policy, including a 2018 vote against a resolution to end the U.S. involvement in the civil war in Yemen. Rumors have swirled that he could be tapped for a high-level position like secretary of state in a Biden administration.

Coons is something of an accidental senator, winning office only after Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell defeated longtime Republican officeholder Mike Castle in a Republican Senate primary in 2010. Coons, an underdog against Castle, easily dispatched O’Donnell. But he’s never won more than 56 percent of the vote in his two Senate elections.

In the wake of last year’s stunning Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) upset, numerous primary challengers have targeted Democratic incumbents in the House. But not many have attempted the difficult climb of battling a Democratic incumbent senator. While Delaware’s size makes this somewhat manageable, its status as a machine state with so much corporate influence builds significant barriers. But Scarane does at least have some territory to mine to make the case that Coons doesn’t represent the values of his blue state.

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