Scarane burns up the phone lines, hoping to beat Del. veteran Coons

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Jessica Scarane

Democratic candidate Jessica Scarane says Sen. Chris Coons works too well with Republicans. She’s launched a primary campaign to unseat him. (Courtesy Scarane campaign)

2020 has not been the year Jessica Scarane (or any of us really) thought it would be. Last November, Scarane announced a progressive campaign in Delaware against U.S. Sen. Chris Coons. By starting the race nearly a year before the Sept. 15 primary date, Scarane had plans to crisscross the state, introducing herself to voters and hearing their concerns.

“We were hoping to have a summer and spring that was full of canvassing and going directly to voters’ doors to be able to bring our message directly to them,” Scarane said. Instead, her campaign has been relegated to reaching voters by phone. She said the campaign put 1,000 volunteers to work, burning up the phone lines making calls to 600,000 voters, more than half of the state’s population of just under one million.

Reaching as many voters as possible was a necessary strategy against an opponent who is so well known. Coons has served for ten years in the Senate seat once held by Joe Biden, and for ten years before that, he served at the top of county government in New Castle County — Delaware’s most populous — as county council president for four years and county executive for six.

Coons said his interaction with voters over the past six months has mainly been through helping Delawareans get help during the pandemic. “My phone has been ringing off the hook, people have reached out to my office by text, by email, by phone,” Coons said. “I have never had as much constituent contact or as many reasons to work hard and help people as I have in the last six months.”

Coons has also been a frequent guest on cable news shows and spoke to a national audience at the Democratic National Convention in August, on the same night Biden accepted the party’s nomination. That night, Coons talked about “his friend” Joe Biden’s faith and how he comforted Coons when his father was in hospice: “Joe’s comforted me in my toughest moments, as he has so many others.”

Scarane contrasted Coons’ high-profile appearances with her style of outreach. “I certainly think that’s a method of voter contact, if that’s what you want to use as a way to get yourself in front of people. I’d much rather have individual conversations with people about what’s affecting their lives and what’s important to them,” she said.

She also expressed frustration at not being able to debate Coons. In mid-July, WHYY News reached out to both campaigns to schedule a virtual debate online. While Scarane’s camp was immediately willing, Coons campaign finally decided not to participate on Aug. 25. “Regrettably, we couldn’t identify sufficient time for Senator Coons to attend this debate, as his schedule is swamped the next two weeks, and then he will be back in session the following week,” the campaign said.

Scarane accused Coons of being too concerned with national politics at the expense of what Delaware voters want. “He’s not running on how he’s used his power to make our state better,” she said. “It’s very much about Donald Trump, his campaign. That’s what he’s sending to people’s mailboxes. Those flyers and mailers about Donald Trump, not about the things that he’s actually done for us.”

Coons said he is proud of his efforts to help Delawareans, including through the CARES Act, which he supported. He also wrote several provisions that were included in the final bill. “Talking to people in Delaware who were helped by those provisions, that was terrific. It’s one of those reminders of why this is worth doing,” he said.

There’s also been frustration for Coons, as he’s worked to find common ground across the aisle in a bitterly divided Congress. He’s made a name for himself as a rare Democrat who is willing to work with Republicans to find areas of compromise. In 2018, a Politico headline called Coons “the GOP’s favorite Democrat.”

Coons says his willingness to reach across the aisle is the foundation of how Congress is supposed to work. “Figuring out what you can get votes for and what you can get passed, that’s what being a legislator is about,” he said.

And while Coons may agree with the end goal of Scarane’s support for more progressive ideas like reducing the effects of climate change via the Green New Deal, he says there’s not the bipartisan support passing such legislation would require.

He says the same goes for Medicare for All, which Scarane also supports.

“I just spent 10 years in the Senate where Republicans have been trying to kill the Affordable Care Act every day. And the Affordable Care Act is a lot less bold, dramatic, progressive, however you want to describe it,” Coons said. He supports Biden’s ideas to save the ACA and make it more affordable and inclusive by adding a public option. He says Medicare for All isn’t enactable. “Would you rather propose an agenda that is not enactable, or one that is credibly enactable? That’s the difference between a protester and a legislator.”

Scarane counters that there is public support for Medicare for All and the pandemic has revealed the need for such an overhaul. “I have heard over and over since we started this campaign in November that health care is the number one issue. That continues to be true, particularly as people are seeing millions of people — themselves included — lose their jobs and lose their employer-based health insurance along with it,” she said. “We continue to run on the things that people are asking for. They’re asking for an end to this for-profit health insurance system that keeps them sick and puts them in debt.”

Coons’ close relationship with Biden has caused some to question whether he would be in line for a role in the administration if Biden were to win in November. “When you are running for a six-year term, I think that you should be required to say it is your intention to serve that term and you will refuse any appointments into an administration,” Scarane said.

When asked by WHYY, Coons would not pledge to serve out his term. “I expect that I will do whatever helps the state of Delaware and the Biden administration the most,” he said. “I am fairly certain that means serving in the Senate, but if the Vice President asks me to take on a very senior role, I would seriously consider it.”

Democratic voters will pick between Coons and Scarane on Tuesday, Sept. 15. The Democratic winner will take on the winner of the Republican primary between Lauren Witzke and Jim DeMartino. They’ll also face Independent Party of Delaware candidate Mark Turley and Green Party candidate Nadine Frost.

Delaware’s overwhelming voter registration advantage for Democrats makes it very difficult for Republicans to compete in statewide races. In 2018, Democrats took control of all statewide elected seats. Democrats have held both of Delaware’s seats in the U.S. Senate since Tom Carper unseated Republican Bill Roth 20 years ago.

With Delaware’s own Joe Biden at the top of the ticket in November, it’s likely First State Democrats will be even more energized than ever to vote for one of their own. That could have a trickle-down effect that helps Democrats down the ballot.

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