Law & the Courts

Democrats Test Their Anti-Trump Message in a Special Election in Delaware

Democratic candidate Stephanie Hansen (Campaign photo via Facebook)
They have taken a calculated risk in nationalizing an otherwise obscure state-senate race.

Democrats will be watching two key elections this Saturday. Party leaders will vote in Atlanta for a new chair of the Democratic National Committee, in a battle between Keith Ellison, who is backed by Bernie Sanders fans, and Tom Perez, an Obama secretary of labor who has been praised by the former president.

The other election, in Delaware, would fill a state-senate seat in what would normally be an obscure race, but it will be the first real test of the strength of anti-Trump activism since the election. Democrats are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into this race in suburban New Castle County. Total spending will top $1 million, or ten times what a typical competitive state-senate race in Delaware costs. If Democrats can’t retain a state senate seat that Hillary Clinton won by eleven points in November, their claims of a grassroots rebellion could be seen as so much Astroturf. 

The race also has symbolic meaning. Should Republican John Marino defeat Democrat Stephanie Hansen on Saturday, control of the state senate would flip to the Republicans for the first time since 1972, the year that Joe Biden was first elected to the U.S. Senate. A GOP majority of 11–10 would leave the Democrats with complete control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature in just four states — California, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Hawaii. Talk about a regional, coastal party.

Local Republicans are trying to raise enough money to remain competitive. They have a decent candidate in Marino, a businessman who won 49 percent of the vote against the district’s last incumbent, Bethany Hall-Long. She vacated the seat on being elected lieutenant governor last November. Marino notes that he is being outspent by Democrats by a ratio of three to one. “It’s pretty gross the amount of money they’re spending,” he told the Wilmington News Journal. “This is supposed to be a state of Delaware Senate race, and she has money coming from all over the country.” Indeed, the Democratic political action committee supporting Hansen has raised 15 times the amount that the PAC backing Marino has.

She defends against complaints about the outside money flowing into Delaware, saying that it has become a race with national implications. “If we want to be able to keep the federal Republican agenda from settling in our living room, we have to be able to have our own fortification here at home,” she said in a debate last month. To build that fortification, Hansen has brought in former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley to campaign for her. Even former vice president Biden has come out of retirement to knock on doors for her in the district. 

Democrats should prevail on Saturday. In addition, to their overwhelming spending advantage, they have 16,100 registered voters on the rolls, against 10,100 Republicans and 9,400 independents. “If Democrats can’t win in a district where Hillary won by double digits and Republicans are less than a third of registered voters, they have a problem,” J. C. Boggs, the son of a former GOP U.S. senator from Delaware told me. 

Josh Kraushaar of National Journal notes just how much the Democrats are pouring all their efforts into anti-Trump fury. “The emerging view among many Democrats is that President Trump is so unpopular, even in many GOP-friendly areas, that their candidates simply need to run against the White House to win back control of Congress,” he writes.

That hypothesis is about to be tested, and we’ll see whether Democrats have been smart to move to nationalize the election.

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