Democrats are looking to Delaware for the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-style insurgent upset

  • Kerri Evelyn Harris, a 38-year-old Air Force veteran and community organiser, is mounting the first-ever primary challenge to longtime Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat.
  • Party activists see Harris and her grassroots, small-dollar campaign as a model for a new wave of Democratic candidates, many of whom are political outsiders who explicitly reject traditional politics.

Still high on Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum’s unexpected gubernatorial primary win in Florida last week, activists on the left are ready for their next insurgent victory – this one against a longtime Democratic senator: Delaware’s Tom Carper.

They hope change will come in the form of Kerri Evelyn Harris, a 38-year-old Air Force veteran and community organiser who’s mounting the first-ever primary challenge against the nearly two-decade incumbent. Delaware’s Democratic voters will decide Thursday.

Harris, a black, gay mother, is running on a deeply progressive platform that includes Medicare-for-All, tuition-free college, and eliminating the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE – all positions Carper has rejected. And she’s been boosted by a series of wins on the left, as well as the endorsement of progressive firebrands like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old who ousted powerful Rep. Joe Crowley in a June primary in New York.

“There will be no blurred line between me and the Republican Party,” Harris said in an interview.

Activists say Carper, the 71-year-old centrist senator, is an awkward fit for the anti-Trump “resistance.”

“He’s the most conservative blue state Democrat and has been a reliable ally of Wall Street,” said Joe Dinkin, national campaigns director for the New York-based Working Families Party, which recently injected $US100,000 into the race on Harris’ behalf. “On a fundamental level, I feel like Carper is operating in the Democratic Party of the ’90s.”

A veteran of 40 years in statewide office, the popular senator is taking the challenge seriously, hiring a field team and riding Amtrak home from DC regularly to hit the pavement.

‘A sea change in how politics are being done’

Party activists see Harris and her grassroots, small-dollar campaign as a model for a new wave of Democratic candidates, many of whom are political outsiders focusing on door-to-door and digital-heavy campaigns that target non-voters and traditionally marginalized communities.

One of the biggest applause lines during the sole debate between the two came when Harris pointed out that she’s refused to take any corporate PAC money to fund her campaign.

“I never want you to question where my loyalties lie,” she said.

In many ways, the Carper-Harris fight in Delaware is reflective of a broader debate playing out at every level of the Democratic Party. In federal, state, and local elections across the country, Democrats are fielding younger, more diverse, and more progressive challengers eager to oust establishment incumbents – often older white men – they see as too politically moderate or ethically compromised.

But Carper is the first safe Senate Democrat to face a serious challenger.

Supporters say Harris, an organiser, veteran, and former auto mechanic, can appeal both to more conservative Democrats and the progressive base with her combination of populist economics and rights-based policies.

“She’s speaking out for an economy that works for the many and she’s speaking out on issues of racial justice and criminal justice reform,” Dinkin said. “And those two things combined is where the energy is in the Democratic party.”

Activists say that her candidacy is a win-win for Democrats. If she pulls out an unexpected victory, it would be one of the biggest upsets of the year. If she loses, she’s helped push an incumbent Democrat to the left, built an infrastructure and base of support that will aid the next challenger, and inspired more insurgent candidacies.

“This will be a tough race for her, but boy is this a sea change in how politics are being done,” said Mark Egerman, a Google engineer and Democratic donor, adding that the race presents one of the cheapest opportunities to fund an insurgent upset.

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper and former Vice President Joe BidenJeff Fusco/Getty ImagesDelaware Sen. Tom Carper and former Vice President Joe Biden

Different visions for Delaware – and the Democratic Party

Harris has taken Carper to task on his positions on healthcare (he opposes a single-payer system), environmental protection (he voted for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and offshore drilling), criminal justice issues (he oversaw a sharp expansion of Delaware’s incarcerated population), and foreign policy (he’s a military hawk who voted for the Iraq War).

She sees herself as a break from the state’s tradition of socially liberal but deeply pro-business lawmakers like Carper, who favour keeping Delaware a tax and regulatory haven for large corporations.

Notably, Carper voted in 2006 to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for a spot on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals – a vote that’s come back to haunt him as opposition to the Supreme Court nominee galvanizes Democratic voters. Carper says he regrets the decision and will fight Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS nomination.

Unfortunately for the senator, Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearings are playing out in the days leading up to the primary election on Thursday.

But Carper is a formidable institution in Delaware politics. And establishment Democrats, including the state Democratic Party and former Vice President and Delaware golden boy Joe Biden, have lined up to endorse him.

“Delawareans know Tom, and they know his track record of delivering for the state and the families who live here,” a spokesperson for Carper said in an email.

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