POLITICS

Sen. Tom Carper Is In The Political Fight Of His Life Against Progressive Newcomer Kerri Harris

Could Delaware be the site of the next big progressive upset?
Kerri Evelyn Harris, a community activist, has mounted an unexpectedly spirited primary bid against Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).
Kerri Evelyn Harris, a community activist, has mounted an unexpectedly spirited primary bid against Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).

In recent weeks, insurgent progressive candidates have had some big wins. In New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knocked off Rep. Joe Crowley, a prospect for speaker of the House. In Florida, Andrew Gillum won a Democratic primary filled with more moderate and better-funded candidates for governor. And in Massachusetts on Tuesday, Ayanna Pressley handily defeated Rep. Mike Capuano, a 10-term incumbent.

On Thursday, progressives have another chance for a big win if they defeat Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a business-friendly moderate who has been in office since 2001.

Community organizer Kerri Evelyn Harris remains a long-shot. The only public poll in the race, conducted in July, showed Carper leading by 32 percentage points.

But left-leaning outsiders have regularly defied polls this election cycle, and election watchers maintain that it is the most competitive primary Carper has faced since he first entered the Senate. The challenge has prompted Carper, whose 2012 primary opponent won just 12 percent of the vote, to spend over $1.5 million on his present primary campaign. As of mid-August, Carper had an additional $1 million in cash on hand to spend against her.

That Harris has even mounted a serious bid against Carper when he has raised at least 25 times as much money as she has speaks to the unexpected strength of her candidacy as well as that of the populist wave sweeping the Democratic Party.

There is no shortage of policy differences between Carper and Harris. They disagree on how to handle the student debt crisis (Carper claims Harris’ plan to cancel student debt would require a “magic wand”), bank regulation (Carper voted for a major rollback of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill), climate change (Carper supported the Keystone XL natural gas pipeline) and Medicare for all (Carper does not support it).

Whether you’re living in government housing or a truly middle-class neighborhood, we’re all having these issues of trying to make ends meet. Democratic Senate candidate Kerri Evelyn Harris

But a central theme has been a dispute over authenticity and trust, particularly around corporate campaign money ― another issue that played out in Pressley’s win over Capuano, known as a progressive lawmaker, on Tuesday.

Carper has received $1.7 million from political action committees representing businesses this year alone. His biggest corporate PAC donors include United Parcel Service, which has contributed $50,000, and the Swiss multinational bank UBS, which has given him $25,000.

Harris argues that these donations undermine any promises he makes. If she wins, she will be one of 117 Democratic congressional nominees who have pledged not to accept corporate PAC money, according to End Citizens United, a group that promotes the pledge.

During an Aug. 27 debate, Carper preemptively defended himself on the issue, an acknowledgment of its importance in the race. He implied that it was incorrect to say that he had taken money from corporations, since corporations are legally required to donate to federal candidates through political action committees rather than directly. (He also highlighted his support for public campaign financing, among other far-reaching reforms.)

Carper’s decision to debate Harris shows that he knows he has a race on his hands. He has also filmed a digital video advertisement that emulated the biographical style of many younger candidates and sought the help of former Vice President Joe Biden, a fellow Delawarean, who recorded a robocall on Carper’s behalf.

Regardless of the outcome Thursday, the message is clear: If even a three-term senator and former governor of one of the most pro-business states in the country is vulnerable to a left-wing challenge, no elected Democrat is safe.

“For far too long, Democratic politicians have thought that, so long as they are not involved in a tawdry scandal, they could count on renomination. That’s a very anti-democratic worldview,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project. “It is incredibly good for democracy that politicians have to face their voters and justify their actions in the name of those voters.”

Democratic primary candidate Kerri Evelyn Harris, a gay Air Force veteran, greets a supporter in Wilmington, Delaware, on Jul
Democratic primary candidate Kerri Evelyn Harris, a gay Air Force veteran, greets a supporter in Wilmington, Delaware, on July 20.

A Community Organizer Who Knows What It’s Like To Struggle

Harris, 38, the daughter of a white mother and a black father, both schoolteachers, is a recently divorced gay woman who left her Air Force career in 2008 when a bad reaction to an anthrax vaccine permanently sidelined her. 

Harris has struggled to provide for her two children, now ages 8 and 1, taking jobs as a cook at a gas station and as an auto mechanic. In a June interview with HuffPost, Harris recounted the ongoing challenge of making ends meet ― let alone campaigning ― on a modest income. She said she remembered the pain she felt over the years turning down her daughter’s requests to buy simple things. Her daughter would offer to pay for things herself with money from her piggy bank.

Harris held back tears as she recalled the “personal disappointment in yourself because you should never have to put your kid in that situation where they feel like they have to assist you.” 

Although Harris is still completing her bachelor’s degree, she now has steady work as an organizer in Wilmington. She leads the Achievement Matters program to lower the educational achievement gap between different parts of Delaware’s biggest city, and she helps low-income families address their needs through her work with the Delaware Alliance for Community Advancement.

Harris sees her biracial heritage, military service and personal experience with economic scarcity as the sort of diverse perspective that makes her a natural organizer. Even her stint at a predominantly white auto body shop helped her speak to reluctant audiences about building working-class solidarity, according to Harris.

“Whether you’re living in government housing or a truly middle-class neighborhood, we’re all having these issues of trying to make ends meet and these pains of having the whole family chip in,” she said. “And it’s not getting better. So we have to make it better.” 

The June primary win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seen here speaking at a fundraiser in Los Angeles, gave Harris' campaign ne
The June primary win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seen here speaking at a fundraiser in Los Angeles, gave Harris' campaign new life. Ocasio-Cortez has since rallied for Harris.

An Ocasio-Cortez Repeat?

Harris toiled in obscurity for months until the stunning June primary win of Ocasio-Cortez, who is now the Democratic nominee in New York’s 14th Congressional District.

Harris and her staff drove up to Queens to help get out the vote for Ocasio-Cortez on June 26. Ocasio-Cortez returned the favor with a shout-out to her massive Twitter following, and money and national attention soon poured into Harris’ fledgling campaign.

She raked in $15,000 in the week after Ocasio-Cortez’s win ― more than she had raised in the four months prior.

The ties between the two campaigns have grown even stronger in recent weeks. Key members of the Justice Democrats, the group of Bernie Sanders campaign alumni who effectively ran Ocasio-Cortez’s bid, have taken up camp in Delaware to spearhead Harris’ digital and field organizing operations. And in late August, Ocasio-Cortez came down to headline rallies for Harris in Newark and Wilmington.

There are undoubtedly parallels between the two candidates. Both are political newcomers and women of color who challenged significantly older and better-funded white male incumbents with track records of coziness with big business.

NBC’s Chuck Todd made the comparison explicit in an “MTP Daily” segment last Friday. After rattling off a number of Harris’ policy positions and criticisms of Carper, Todd quipped, “Sound familiar?” Images of Ocasio-Cortez and Harris campaigning together appeared on screen as he spoke.

Harris even narrates her own viral video advertisement, directed by Winnie Wong, a co-founder of the grassroots group The People for Bernie Sanders. It features diverse scenes of Delaware life, including cornfields, the Amtrak train and homeless people living under a bridge.

“Our elected officials are failing us. People have remained in power because they only give us just enough to gasp for air but not enough to actually breathe and thrive,” Harris says in the ad.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a senator since 2001, previously served as Delaware's governor and congressman. He has a more centr
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a senator since 2001, previously served as Delaware's governor and congressman. He has a more centrist record on fiscal and economic policy.

A New ‘Delaware Way’?

Harris’ campaign ― and her juxtaposition with Carper, a 71-year-old former Naval officer ― have a distinctly Delawarean flavor.

For several decades, members of Delaware’s congressional delegation ― from either party ― have been characterized by a liberal bent on so-called social issues, such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, and a more centrist approach to fiscal issues, such as taxes and regulation. Delaware has evolved into a tax and regulatory haven, making it a hub for some of the country’s largest financial institutions and pharmaceutical companies, alongside historic industries like chemical manufacturing.

The state’s political class refers to this bipartisan spirit of cooperation with industry as the “Delaware Way.”

In four decades in state politics, Carper has embodied this style of governance more than many others ― in some cases pioneering it, as The Intercept documented in detail.

As Delaware’s sole congressman in 1987, Carper helped kill a cap on credit card interest rates. In 1998, as Delaware’s governor, Carper abolished the state’s inheritance tax. And in 2005, as a senator, Carper co-sponsored then-President George W. Bush’s bankruptcy reform bill, which made it harder for struggling families to write off their debts. Unlike then-Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, who has also endured criticism for backing the legislation, Carper rejected most amendments that tried to make the bill fairer.

Until now, the conventional wisdom was that this was the kind of balance Delaware voters wanted, the kind that was right for a state so dependent on its attractiveness to major corporations.

Indeed, Carper defends his record as a reflection of the state’s pragmatic, business-friendly brand of liberalism. Unlike the most conservative Democratic members of Congress, Carper was a reliable vote for the biggest Democratic priorities, such as the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, which he proudly boasts of helping write. (In March, Carper justified his support for the repeal of some of Dodd-Frank’s key oversight provisions for banks with under $250 billion in assets on the grounds that Delaware’s community banks and credit unions needed relief.)

Carper, who is the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, also frames his penchant for bipartisan deal-making as an advantage in the consensus-oriented Senate. His behind-the-scenes persuasion efforts with Republican colleagues reportedly played a role in the White House’s withdrawal of Kathleen Hartnett White, a climate change skeptic, as nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency’s Council on Environmental Quality, and Michael Dourson, a pro-industry researcher, as head of the EPA’s chemical safety division.

“It’s one thing to know the right thing to do; it’s another thing to actually do it,” he said in the Aug. 27 debate. 

It’s one thing to know the right thing to do; it’s another thing to actually do it. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.)

And, unlike New York’s Crowley, whose primary residence was in Northern Virginia, Carper commutes to and from his Delaware home every day. His biographical digital campaign ad depicts him heading to the Wilmington YMCA every morning before he takes the Amtrak to Washington. The minute-long video also features endorsements from the head of the state’s teachers union, the state’s former health secretary and Wilmington port workers.

“I get my energy from the people I serve,” Carper says. The camera then shows him getting behind the wheel of his old Chrysler minivan, which he boasts has 482,000 miles on it.

But 2018 is a year of high enthusiasm among Democratic activists. For Resistance voters fired up about President Donald Trump, Carper’s votes in support of Trump administration officials may be even more of a liability than his record of standing up for the big banks. He voted to confirm Energy Secretary Rick Perry as well as Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, among other Trump Cabinet officials. And perhaps most damaging, in 2006, he voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the federal bench (he has said he regrets that vote and plans to vote against Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation).

Harris believes that there is another Delaware that has not always been represented by the state’s Democratic members of Congress. She plans to win in large part by turning out many of the progressives, voters of color and working-class people who often stay home in midterm elections. Wilmington is a particularly target-rich environment for this approach: 58 percent of city residents are black; 26 percent live in poverty.

The Working Families Party, which is trying to move the Democratic Party to the left, has invested $100,000 to help turn out those voters. The group’s spending will include text-message alerts, digital advertisements, direct mail and paid field organizing.

Recent poll-defying primary wins by two underdog black candidates ― Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, and Pressley, the uncontested Democratic nominee in Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District ― lend greater plausibility to Harris’ strategy. And if Delaware’s typically low midterm primary turnout grows significantly this year, Harris’ advisers believe that she still needs just 26,000 of those votes to win.

“We are the mirror reflection of the United States,” said Harris, before noting that the state’s three counties are solidly Democratic, solidly Republican and politically split, respectively. “If we can change the mindset in Delaware, it shows it can happen nationwide.”

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