To keep party peace, state Democrats won’t endorse

Xerxes Wilson via The News Journal

Party leaders want to avoiding endorsements in most statewide races, citing the potential for party division.

In a break from tradition, the Delaware Democratic Party will not make endorsements in this fall’s statewide Democratic primaries for Congress, lieutenant governor and insurance commissioner.

The decision, made during a tense meeting of the party’s state executive committee, results from having many qualified candidates and a concern that party leadership’s endorsement would cause division following the Sept. 13 primary, committee members said.

“The rank and file Democrats will make the decision on Primary Day,” said Robert Gilligan, former speaker of the state House and a member of the national Democratic Party’s executive committee. “Who is the state executive committee to decide who is endorsed and who people should vote for?”

Rhett Ruggerio, a Dover lobbyist and former national committeeman who sat on the state party’s executive committee for four years, said the debate over whether to endorse is the “the old guard versus the new guard” and the shift away from endorsements reflects increasing influence of progressive Democrats across the country. “As far as the endorsement process (in Delaware), there is no doubt that is sort of going away,” Ruggerio said. “It has trended that way. Ten years ago, in 2006, you didn’t have as many candidates running. It made it easier to choose between two or three candidates.”

This year, the packed fields have caused division in the party.

Earlier this month, state party Chairman John Daniello raised the ire of candidates and some executive committee members by sending a letter to every Democrat in a primary suggesting some should consider dropping out. He said the lack of endorsements at the state level is a reflection of the problem he sought to address by that letter.

“That is part of the problem when you have so many running for the same office,” Daniello said. “They could not agree to endorse.”

It is not unheard of for some races to go without endorsements, but this marks a change from normal operation for the 25-member committee that has typically endorsed a Democrat leading up to statewide primaries, committee members said.

The decision to avoid endorsements was not without dissension, principally from Daniello.

The former New Castle County councilman and former Delaware cabinet secretary said he felt members were abdicating one of the party’s main responsibilities in helping voters select the best candidate.

“Part of our obligation is to recruit, select and elect candidates at all levels,” Daniello said. “That is one of the big functions. It is not always easy, but it is what we have to live by.”

The state’s executive committee met last week and when the idea of endorsements came up, the committee voted to pass on endorsing in the six-Democrat primary for lieutenant governor and two-Democrat race for insurance commissioner, party members said.

The committee adjourned before the question of endorsing one of six Democrats vying for Congress arose, Daniello said. The committee is not scheduled to meet again until after the primary.

Mitch Crane, an executive committee member and chair of the Sussex County Democratic Party, said he felt the committee wanted to endorse the challenger for insurance commissioner, but felt it would be hypocritical as they were passing on endorsements for Congress and lieutenant governor.

Gilligan said the debate over whether to endorse reflects a philosophical disagreement about what the party’s influence should be.

“Our role is to encourage people and be involved in the process at the local level and discuss issues,” Gilligan said. “It is our role to get people involved in Election Day. Once we have a candidate, our role is to support that candidate.”

For others, it is a matter of party pragmatism to avoid alienating qualified candidates that should play a role in the party even after they lose in the primary.

“What you have to gain by making endorsements, I think, is overwhelmed by what you have to lose by division, which can be permanent,” Crane said. “If it is not permanent, it can affect the General Election, which is just weeks after the primary.”

Crane said some felt the party’s endorsement of Congressman John Carney over Gov. Jack Markell leading up to the 2008 primary for governor was a lesson. He said there was a sentiment by many Carney supporters that it was “his turn.”

“When Jack Markell won the primary, many of them wouldn’t talk to Markell supporters for a year or two,” Crane said. “They were very angry, but they eventually came around.”

Gilligan said Markell and Carney immediately got over any primary race division, but angst remained among supporters making Markell’s work with the General Assembly more difficult starting out. Carney is the party’s lone endorsement for statewide office this cycle as he has no primary competition.

Daniello agreed there is the potential for division, but said the lack of endorsement marks what he sees as diminishing influence by the party apparatus. Part of the challenge for the party, he said, is popular sentiment toward less emphasis on the party’s role.

“Playing up voting for the man, not the party, does not help,” Daniello said. “It is a constant fight to keep the parties relevant, but that is our job,” Daniello said.

He said it has given rise to a situation where some candidates are not truly active in the party, which makes the party’s function of vetting them difficult.

“They never ran for anything and they come out of the woodwork and want to run for statewide office,” Daniello said.

The situation is also a reflection of changes to the national parties, observers said. This presidential election cycle has seen a hugely popular candidate in Bernie Sanders attack the party establishment as part of his failed run for the presidential nomination. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has rallied rank and file Republicans in his unlikely defeat of several Republicans preferred by the party establishment.

Wilmington City Council President Theo Gregory, who chairs the city’s Democratic committee and sits on the executive committee, said the decision is the natural evolution from the convention nomination system Delaware political parties used until the 1970s to pick candidates.

In 1976, the General Assembly voted to move statewide elections to the current direct primary system, which sees the public choose party candidates for the general election. Before that, the party’s candidates were selected by delegates at the party’s convention.

“It is philosophical,” Gregory said. “We have a primary system. The people should be making the decision, not some executive committee.”

Gilligan said he foresees the heavy slate of qualified candidates becoming the norm, especially with the ranks of registered Democrats continuing to outnumber registered Republicans two-to-one statewide.

“At one time the state used to be split. It is no longer split. There are going to be more primaries every election because the state is overwhelmingly Democrat,” Gilligan said. “I contend that is healthy … Power should flow from the bottom, not the top.”

Crane said he does not foresee a situation where endorsements are abandoned altogether, but the format should change.

“We have endorsed every single cycle except this one,” Crane said. “This is an unusual situation … Most (congressional candidates) have served and each has a base of support. Endorsing one person in those races you are alienating 60 or 70 percent of the other people.”

He said the party still has a role in making endorsements, especially in local races when the voters are not as informed about the candidates as they are for the statewide races.

But the party does need to change its endorsement format to communicate to voters why they are endorsing a candidate, he said. He used his endorsement by the executive committee for insurance commissioner four years ago as an example. He lost that race to incumbent commissioner Karen Weldin Stewart.

“Four years ago, I was endorsed as insurance commissioner over the incumbent but they didn’t tell anybody why,” Crane said. “That doesn’t help anybody. It made the endorsement less effective.”

Contact Xerxes Wilson at (302) 324-2787 or Follow @Ber_Xerxes on Twitter.

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