It’s a pretty rare thing when a primary election carries such a punch – and far-reaching consequences for the Delaware political landscape – as did last Tuesday’s Democratic contest.
There was a slate of crowded and competitive races at every level, ambitious comers, fresh faces and veterans going for or defending local, state and federal offices. And in what has become a one-party city/county/state, several winners will glide into office without breaking much of a sweat in the general. The ousting of two incumbents also means that come January, there will be a trio of new chief executives for the state and both its largest county and city.
That alone is huge, but this year’s primary involved so many people running for so many key races that its outcomes will also have serious implications for the losers and those not even on the field this cycle. Here’s our take on what happened.
A new mayor for a troubled city – This is the result that matters most. Of all the contested offices, the mayor of Wilmington has the greatest ability to impact people’s lives. A competent, energetic leader of a city this size can make immediate game-changing (eg, public safety) moves to improve resident’s lives and the town’s battered reputation. Mike Purczyki ran on the proposition that he had the management experience to do just that and his technically flawless campaign bolsters his case. In a field of eight he had one narrow route to becoming the white mayor of a majority black city. It required identifying, recruiting and dragging just enough R, D and I voters to the polls to nip across the line first, a recipe that required superb discipline, organization and fundraising, skills that will be critical in rehabilitating Wilmington’s vitality and pride.
Purczyki will have his hands full dealing with deep and complex issues of crime and poverty and many skeptical city constituencies. But he’s going to have an awful lot of good people rooting for – and willing to step up and help – him get the city on track.
A word on two who came up short: The incumbent, Mayor Dennis Williams, ran a confounding and largely nonexistent campaign that pretty much mirrored his failed administration. You see something like that and wonder, what was the point of it all? Eugene Young’s campaign generated real excitement and showed operational savvy, and he was gaining undeniable momentum in the election’s final stretches. Had the election been a few weeks later, we might have seen a different outcome.
Congressional contest is a surprising blowout – Lisa Blunt Rochester also bested a crowded field that included state Senator Brian Townsend, the local left’s favorite rising star. This was a pretty surprising outcome because after having spent most of the last decade out of state, Rochester was on no one’s original short list to replace John Carney as the state’s lone representative in the US House. But more shocking was the margin of her victory – she smoked Townsend and Sean Barney, both reasonably well-known and well-funded (along with a gaggle of also rans). Rochester put together a big-time statewide campaign, made possible in large part by $400,000+ of her own money, showing that effective TV advertising – and big personal bucks – can still breakthrough in a wide-open race. From a historic perspective, she now has a shot to be the first woman and African American to represent Delaware in Congress, a prospect already garnering her national attention.
The Gordon Era ends – Tom Gordon and Hillary Clinton seem to share an inability to avoid stepping in it, always getting distracted with some kind of shenanigans often involving secrecy or the behavior of top staff. All that caught up with Gordon last week thanks to a surprisingly crisp and effective campaign by Matt Meyer, a first time candidate most people had never heard of until this summer. His victory will almost certainly mean the end of a long and tortuous era in county government. Gordon supporters will say his record as a manager of county finances was impeccable but not well told (it appeared to be a pretty listless campaign). His detractors won’t miss the constant drama. Meyer has a glittering, almost too-incredible-to-be-true resume that includes work as a lawyer, diplomat, entrepreneur, teacher, software developer and international development specialist. That gaudy experience probably won’t impress a lot of hard-nosed county stakeholders more interested in employee contracts and zoning permits. Meyer’s success will hinge on his ability to articulate and get people behind a compelling vision for the state’s largest municipality of nearly 600,000 and bringing talented new people into Reads Way.
We will soon have a Lt. Governor – will anyone notice? – With so much focus on the big three races above, the primary contest for Lt. Governor barely got any notice. From the outset, Bethany Hall-Long was the favorite in a competition that included some respectable political players from across the state. As with Purczyki, this fractured field benefited the state senator, who ran a fairly low-key campaign, with no funny business when it came to her opponent’s signs.
Hall-Long’s win reflected the norms we’ve seen in the past – a stolid, unremarkable front runner with state party support grinds their way to victory by appealing to the regulars. Yet even in victory her race shows how much things have changed: all the senator’s institutional strengths did little to deter a bevy of ambitious competitors from jumping into the race. In any event, come January we’ll have a Lt. Governor for the first time since Matt Denn vacated the office to run for Attorney General. The role may not have a lot of responsibility but the last Lt. Governor who didn’t go on to a bigger job was Dale Wolf and that is because he retired.
*In a day when the state’s focus was on the Ds, Hall-Long’s nomination could ironically be the most important outcome for the DE GOP. There will be a special election called to fill out her term in the senate, and Republicans have a very good track record in those contests, not to mention the fact that Hall-Long herself barely survived a GOP challenge in the last election. That possible outcome along with several outstanding candidates taking on entrenched incumbents has GOP leaders optimistic of significant gains in the senate – if not a legitimate shot at control of the chamber.
The D bench just got more crowded – Politics is always about the next race and Tuesday’s results make Democratic crystal ball-gazing even more interesting. For example, should Tom Carper choose not to run for reelection to the US Senate (although it is hard to find anyone truly confident that will happen), there will undoubtedly be a feeding frenzy for the Democratic nomination, with potential claimants from Jack Markell to Lisa Blunt Rochester to Matt Denn. Matt Meyer and Hall-Long have just leapfrogged into the top tier of leading Ds, and we will also have a new Insurance Commissioner (a third incumbent sent packing) and leadership of New Castle County and Wilmington City councils. Sweeping changes like those don’t happen often but in this kind of political environment no one should expect they can’t happen again.