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Primary Elections in Delaware: A Political Kiss of Death?

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The sad history of statewide primary elections in Delaware is they are mainly a place where fools rush in. Candidacies go there to die.

Highlights? A primary got Russell Peterson, a sitting governor who had one and never made it to a second term. A primary got Mike Castle, a governor-turned-congressman who was supposed to be on his way to the U.S. Senate when he had one, and that was that.

It means there are going to be a lot of politicians with their fingers crossed, because Primary Day, coming up in Delaware on Sept. 13, has statewide races galore.

Every ballot line—for governor, congressperson, lieutenant governor and insurance commissioner—has primaries, sometimes in each party, to decide the nominees who will go forward to Election Day in 2016.

There are so many candidates, they are like the children living with the old woman in the shoe, and nobody knows what to do.

Chris Coons, the Democratic U.S. senator, is safely on the sidelines because he is not up for election this year, but it’s not as if he could turn away and not watch. He was already anticipating a spectacle when he gave a speech in the spring.

“We have primaries like we’ve never had them before,” Coons said then. “We are going to have rock-’em-sock-’em primaries.”

As political practices go, statewide primaries have not really been around that long in Delaware, not for a state that was first to ratify the Constitution and get the country going all the way back in 1787.

Both the Democrats and the Republicans used to select their statewide nominees at a convention, with party insiders deciding whom the party would put up, but by the 1960s, a new spirit in favor of democratic rights was rising.

The country was alive with civil rights, women’s rights and voting rights for 18-year-olds. People were even saying to each other, “Right on.”

One of the reforms to come out of those times was statewide primaries to let the voters decide who would get the nominations.

The primaries immediately turned out to be candidate-killers and put the fear of them so deep in both the Democrats and the Republicans, it went all the way down into their political DNA.

The Democrats were the first to have a primary. It was in 1970 for the state’s lone congressional seat, which was open because Bill Roth, then the Republican congressman, was running to move on up to the U.S. Senate, where he would serve for the next 30 years.

Pete du Pont, who was nothing but a junior state legislator at the time, was the Republican candidate. The Democrats had a knock-down-drag-out primary and lost to du Pont. The Democrats probably would not have won anyway, because Delaware was a Republican state back then, it was a Republican year, and they were running against a du Pont. Still, the primary really stung.

The Republicans had their first statewide primary two years later, in 1972. Russell Peterson was the governor. He had made his mark as a champion of the environment, but the state’s finances were a mess, and he had replaced the commissions and boards that pretty much ran things with a cabinet, which was exceedingly unpopular downstate, where voters thought it took power from the people and gave it to the government.

Dave Buckson, a downstate Republican who had been a popular two-term attorney general, took on Peterson in a primary. Peterson fended him off but went on to lose to Sherman Tribbitt, the Democratic candidate for governor, even with George McGovern running for president and dragging down the Democratic ticket.

Both parties were stunned by the political wreckage of their early primaries. There were none in either 1974 or 1976.

“Everybody had had enough of reform,” quipped Glenn Kenton, a Republican secretary of state for Pete du Pont during his governorship from 1977 to 1985. 

Primaries eventually resumed, but they kept their reputation as a political kiss of death. It was not until 1984 that candidates who had primaries went on to win statewide office.

In more recent times, there were two primaries that transformed state politics, for better and for worse.

There was The Good One—the Democratic primary for governor between Jack Markell and John Carney in 2008. It could have split the party, but the candidates treated one another with civility, and the party remained unified.

Markell made it to governor. Carney made a comeback two years later as the congressman. Now Carney is the front-runner for governor in 2016 as Markell leaves office, and Markell has been heard to say about Carney, “The best thing [people] can do for me as a going-away present is support him.”

Not that the primary did not leave a lasting impression, even if Carney did make light of it when he spoke in April at the Sussex County Democrats’ spring dinner in Bridgeville.

“When Gov. Markell and I ran against each other in that primary, there were people in this room on different sides. I’m not going to ask for a show of hands. It’s over! It’s over!” Carney joked.

Then there was The Bad One. It was the Republican primary for U.S. senator in 2010 between Mike Castle and Christine O’Donnell. It did more than give away the seat to Chris Coons, the Democratic candidate who is still in there. It did lasting damage. The Republican party went all Humpty-Dumpty and struggle to put itself back together again.

All of this has left a mixed message for close to 20 candidates running in various primaries right now.

Markell and Carney showed that an intense primary is not necessarily politically fatal, but Coons is unpersuaded that a volcanic primary on the other side means the race is as good as won.

Coons has not forgotten what he was told the day after people went from thinking about him as the political equivalent of shark chum for Mike Castle to the next U.S. senator from Delaware.

“I got called the next day by two people: my mother and the vice president. They said the same thing,” Coons recalled.

“You can blow this, Junior.” 

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