The Team That Helped Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Has Its Next Mission: Lifting Kerri Harris Over Sen. Tom Carper

Tom Carper has been a statewide elected official in Delaware for more than 40 years. Could Kerri Harris, with the support of Ocasio-Cortez and her team, bring him down?

Kerri Evelyn Harris, left, and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware. Photos: Courtesy of the Kerri Evelyn Harris campaign; Alex Wong/Getty Images

Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, will face hostile opposition from many Democratic senators during his confirmation process. This will not be a first-time experience for him: When George W. Bush nominated Kavanaugh in 2003 to be a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, he was regarded as such a controversial and extremist choice that his nomination lingered for three full years, until he was finally confirmed in 2006.

In the final Senate vote on Kavanaugh’s 2006 confirmation, every Democratic senator voted against him except for four — three of them from deep red states (Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, and West Virginia’s Robert Byrd). But the fourth Democratic vote for Kavanaugh came from a senator from a deeply blue state: Delaware’s Tom Carper. Carper is the only Democrat still in the U.S. Senate who voted to confirm Kavanaugh in 2006; all the others voted against.

“If I had known 12 years ago how Judge Kavanaugh would have ruled on any number of issues, including health care and the environment, I never would have voted for him in 2006,” he said in a statement. “I have no intention of voting for him now.” Immediately after Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement was announced, Carper said he would not support any nominee until after November.

Carper’s 2006 vote is particularly relevant now, as the three-term Democratic incumbent faces a primary challenge from Kerri Evelyn Harris, a U.S. Air Force veteran and community organizer whose campaign is based on the argument that Carper has served the corporate and militarized interests that have funded his campaigns over the people of Delaware. She would be a more progressive, less militaristic, and less corporatist senator than Carper.

The first serious challenge to a Democratic incumbent this cycle came against Rep. Dan Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat who bucks the party on most of its key issues, on everything from the minimum wage to abortion rights to marriage equality. Neither Rep. Joe Crowley, defeated in June, nor Carper fit that mold — both are broadly in line with the party on social policy and on issues such as environmental protection. Indeed, despite his support for some Trump nominees, Carper, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, has gone to war against this administration’s environmental policy and has been out front in opposing Environmental Protection Agency boss Scott Pruitt, who Carper helped force out, and several of his cronies. As The Intercept reported at the time, Carper’s good relations with Republicans, combined with his aggressive opposition to some nominees, helped sink a number of Trump appointments.

He has the backing of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Delaware AFL-CIO, Delaware Laborers, Delaware State Education Association, Delaware Stonewall political action committee, and the state Democratic Party. But the question for Delaware Democrats will come down to whether that’s good enough in an era defined by fierce resistance and a concern that big money has rendered the party unable to champion the working class.

Harris, meanwhile, would also be the first woman, the first African-American, and the first openly LGBT candidate to be elected as a U.S. senator for Delaware. She grew up in Peekskill, in Westchester County, New York, then moved to Fullerton, California, and was raised by a biracial couple involved in civil rights work. The Air Force took her to Dover, Delaware, and she has made it her home ever since.

The similarities between this race and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win over Crowley last month are obvious. Ahead of the New York election, Harris went to Queens to canvass for Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, and Ocasio-Cortez recently urged support for Harris, who’s running on a platform that includes “Medicare for All,” demilitarizing the police, decriminalizing drugs, reining in the surveillance state, and abolishing cash bail.

And the organization that recruited and most heavily backed Ocasio-Cortez, Justice Democrats, is preparing to throw its full weight behind Harris, organizers there tell The Intercept.

One of Harris’s unique attributes is that — unlike the military veterans the Democratic Party is now fond of recruiting in order to make the party awash in themes of militarism and war glorification — she has a vehement peace platform that could have added potency because of her military background. From the war on terror and military spending to Israel and Yemen, Harris’s positions are assertively anti-war and pro-peace, including her argument, rarely heard in Democratic politics, that bombing other countries creates the kind of turmoil that can blowback on the United States. As she said in her kickoff speech:

As an air crew member transporting troops and equipment from Dover Air Force Base across the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, I witnessed the costs of war. I saw soldiers suffering from PTSD and other physical ailments. And I can tell you,  I have seen what our current policies do to our veterans and it is unacceptable.

When our current legislators fail to properly consider the consequences of their decisions, they risk American and foreign lives, our national security, and the balance of power throughout the world. Our leaders need to exhaust all diplomatic solutions before resorting to military action because all too often the unintended consequences of military conflict leave behind remnants of crumbling infrastructure and human lives in need of repair — broken governments and feelings of resentment which create breeding grounds for terrorist ideology.

There are, to be sure, meaningful differences between the Delaware primary and the race won by Ocasio-Cortez, beginning with the fact that Carper is far better known, and a far more devoted retail politician, than Crowley was. Crowley didn’t live in the district, while Carper takes the train home to Delaware each night. And Delaware is not New York City. While its population isn’t much greater, the time it takes to travel from top to bottom adds a challenging element to the organizing. Wilmington, where the most voters live, has a high population of black and brown Democrats the Harris campaign hopes it can turn out, while not ignoring the more rural and suburban parts of the state.

Even with the clear momentum anti-establishment candidates now have in the Democratic Party, Harris remains a long shot to unseat an incumbent entrenched as deeply and for as long as Carper is. But few believed Ocasio-Cortez had any real chance of winning either — until she won by 12 points.


Harris, right, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on June 26, 2018.

Photo: Corey Torpie/Courtesy of the Kerri Evelyn Harris campaign

Delaware’s three-term senior senator, Carper, was first elected statewide in 1976, three years before his 2018 primary challenger, Harris, was born. Carper, 71, has spent the last four decades as a politician — as state treasurer, in the House, as governor, and for the last 18 years, in the U.S. Senate — running multiple successful campaigns largely funded by the banks, credit card companies, and corporations that dominate U.S. politics, and which use the tax and regulatory shelter of Delaware as a base from which to do so.

Carper’s voting record and ideology over four decades in office reflect the interests of his corporate funding base far more than his voting base, despite representing one of the most reliably blue states in the country.

In 2002, Carper was one of 29 Democrats to vote to authorize Bush to invade Iraq. On October 11, 2002, Carper went to the Senate floor in order, he said, “to express my support for our nation’s effort to address the threat Saddam Hussein poses,” arguing: “We cannot afford to engage in a high-stakes gamble of betting that this brutal dictator can be deterred from using these most lethal weapons.” Carper threatened, “If Saddam Hussein’s regime is unwilling to accept this level of intrusion, both he and Iraq must be prepared to accept the consequences, including the likelihood of a war they will lose.” He then proudly issued a press release touting his support.

Carper ended his speech by proclaiming: “Stripping Saddam Hussein, once and for all, of the weapons that would enable him to create havoc and great loss of life is a just cause.” As the invasion he supported was about to start, he said, “I wish Saddam Hussein chose another course — given up his weapons of mass destruction or sought exile. But the die has been cast.”

Carper’s support for the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq was by no means aberrational. He has continually served the interests of militarism and corporatism throughout his Senate career, often providing the GOP key votes it needed for enactment of some of its most reactionary and corporate-serving measures.

When Trump did what Obama for years refused to do — order military strikes in Syria against government forces — Carper was one of the most supportive Democrats in Washington. “I am pleased the president appears to have had a change of heart regarding his views toward the Assad regime,” Carper said, adding, “I believe the administration’s measured response was appropriate.”

The Delaware Democrat, meanwhile, was highly critical of Obama’s refusal to use military force there. In 2013, he warned Obama that “diplomacy can only be effective if we maintain a real and credible threat of military force to ensure that Assad follows through with his commitment to disarm. For this reason, all options must remain on the table, including the use of limited military strikes.” Carper urged “a revised resolution in Congress that reiterates our support for the President’s use of a limited military response.”

In 2006, a bill sponsored by some of the Senate’s most right-wing members — including Jeff Sessions and Tom Coburn — sought to declare English the official language of the United States. While the vast majority of the Democratic caucus voted against the bill, it attracted the support of only a handful of red-state Democrats — again with the exception of Carper, who joined the GOP majority in supporting it. In a state where major pharmaceutical companies are dominant, Carper has consistently opposed allowing patients to purchase cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.

The Delaware senator’s support for reactionary policies has extended — indeed, in some cases, accelerated — during the Trump presidency. When Trump nominated as secretary of homeland security his current White House chief of staff, John Kelly — who has proven to be one of the most extreme Trump loyalists when it comes to his racially inflammatory language and actions surrounding immigration — Carper heralded him as “a man of steady leadership,” showering him with praise: “I sincerely congratulate my friend General Kelly on his selection.”

When Trump nominated Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive, to become health and human services secretary in the wake of Tom Price’s resignation, three red state Democrats lined up to vote for him: Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Joining them were Carper and his junior colleague, Chris Coons.

Carper and Coons were also co-sponsors of the recently enacted legislation to roll back Wall Street reform to benefit so-called stadium banks. Carper’s subservience to banking interests prompted MoveOn in 2009 to produce an ad denouncing him:

Carper is a political institution in Delaware. Among regular voters, he is second only to Joe Biden in name recognition, an advantage he’ll carry into the primary against the so-far relatively unknown Harris.

But for all the success he’s had, it almost all fell apart by his own hand, when he hit his first wife.

Carper slapped his then-wife, leaving her with a black eye. He owes his political career to his aggressive denial of the charges when they first surfaced — a denial that turned out to be less than the truth.

It was 1982, and Carper was running for Delaware’s only House seat. As the first midterm election with a Republican president, it was a favorable Democratic climate, and things were looking good for Carper. Then the New York Post began asking questions about the abuse.

When Carper heard they were poking around, his heart sank. “You’re feeling good, and then you’re just reeling,” he later described in an interview with longtime reporter Celia Cohen for her book “Only In Delaware.”

Carper didn’t despair. Instead, he fought back, vehemently denying the charge, even though he had admitted to hitting her in a deposition the previous year. “The implications of that story are without basis in fact,” he said, rolling out a statement from his wife two days later. “Let me state unequivocably (sic) that I would never allow my children or myself to be abused. The very notion that anyone would imply such a thing for political gain or any other reason is appalling,” she said in the campaign statement.

The public sided with Carper, angry at his Republican opponent for what was said to be mudslinging by his opponent’s notoriously dirty consultant, Roger Stone. (Attempts to reach Stone were unsuccessful.) The next year, after Carper won the election, the couple divorced.

But in 1998, Carper admitted to Cohen that it was true that he had hit his wife — but it only happened once, he said.

“Did I slap my wife 20 years ago? Yes. Do I regret it? Yes. Would I do it again? No,” he said.

The issue resurfaced in December when the conservative publication the Free Beacon, which often traffics in conservative opposition research, unearthed it. At the time, Carper was locked in a battle with Pruitt and other Trump appointees to the EPA, and the surfacing of his abuse may well be connected. Either way, Carper has been confronted with both his admission and his earlier denial. “Any claim that I lied or attempted to hide my behavior is false,” Carper said in December. “I am a man who has made his share of mistakes, but I am not and never have been one who abuses his wife and children.”

Carper’s claim that he did not lie appears to hinge on the definition of abuse. At the time the story first emerged, he said, “The implications of that story are without basis in fact.” The implication, presumably, was that he regularly abused his wife, an implication he insisted was “without basis in fact,” because he claims he only hit her once.

The year that Carper publicly admitted the spousal abuse, 1998, has great political significance. That was the height of the Clinton scandals regarding allegations from women of sexual harassment and even rape, when Democrats and women’s groups such as EMILY’s List united in support of Clinton.

But 20 years later, with the rise of the #MeToo movement, the politics surrounding such abuse and harassment has changed radically, as evidenced by Kirsten Gillibrand’s comment last month that Bill Clinton should have resigned due to those scandals.

Just as was true for Ocasio-Cortez’s race, where the Democratic establishment united behind her white male opponent, none of the largest national women’s groups (or LGBT groups) have endorsed Harris yet.

The other implication in the Post article that Carper denied was that he also abused his stepchildren. The Post reported that it had listened to a taped interview the two children did with a local Delaware paper that decided not to print the allegations. The Post also reported that Carper’s stepdaughter, Stephanie, took a picture of her mother with the black eye in case it was later needed as evidence. Stephanie has passed away, as has her mother, and it is unclear whether the photo still exists. Her brother, Greg Hinkson, has since said that Carper never abused him and that he maintains a strong relationship with him.

Whether these stories will harm Carper’s bid for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate will be determined by Democratic voters who show up on September 6, 2018. The deadline to register to vote in that primary is August 11. It’s a closed primary, meaning only registered Democrats can participate.

On Tuesday evening, Alexandra Rojas touched down in Delaware, a development that promises to transform the race. Rojas, who is the co-director of Justice Democrats, ran the sophisticated phone-banking, texting, and volunteer recruitment operation for Ocasio-Cortez, which was able to channel national interest in her race into on-the-ground voter mobilization. 

Rojas’s arrival in Delaware is just the beginning of an Oceans 12-style reunion of the rag-tag Ocasio-Cortez crew whose innovative approach to canvassing pulled off the Bronx heist that shocked the political world.  She’ll soon be joined by Ocasio-Cortez’s canvassing director, Bilal Tahir, who now also works for Justice Democrats. His door-to-door canvassers are routinely cited as having made the difference in New York’s 14th District race.


A volunteer meeting Tuesday night in Delaware, including Alexandra Rojas (left) and Kerri Harris (fourth from right).

Photo: Courtesy of the Kerri Evelyn Harris campaign

Data analyst Ryan O’Donnell, whose modeling and targeting of the Bronx and Queens primary electorate has been described by his colleagues as scarily accurate, will also travel south to help Harris with her voter targeting. And staffers from the Working Families Party, which backed Crowley based on an assumption he’d win easily in New York, are also joining Harris on the campaign trail, this time looking to unseat the incumbent Democrat. WFP is launching digital ads targeting Carper’s support for conservative justices. (Crowley, in fact, is refusing to give up the Working Families Party nomination, meaning he will now appear on the November ballot.)


A Working Families Party digital ad against Carper.


All of the organizing is in the hopes that national attention brought to the race can be channeled into small-dollar fundraising and the growth of a ground game that is already strong. Harris, long before Ocasio-Cortez’s win, had built her campaign in a similar fashion. A community organizer herself, Harris has invested heavily in building a volunteer army and knocking on as many doors as possible, knowing that in a low-turnout environment, a relatively small number of votes could be enough to unseat an institution.

One of the difference-makers for Ocasio-Cortez was her ability to motivate people who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary to vote again in the 2018 midterm primary, an election that most of them would typically have skipped. In Delaware, in April 2016, nearly 37,000 people came out and voted for Sanders in the primary (a contest that was won by Hillary Clinton with some 55,000 votes). If Harris can find and turn out that Sanders cohort, her chances of winning are much greater than widely believed.

Rojas told The Intercept that the campaign thinks its “win number” in the September primary is 26,000. The campaign, she said, has already identified roughly the same number of supporters as Ocasio-Cortez had when Rojas began working for her a month out from the election in New York. From there, with an aggressive final push, they were able to quadruple the number of identified supporters. With nearly two months to go before the primary, Rojas thinks they are well positioned. Delaware’s population is under a million, and the state has just one member of the House; most congressional districts host around 700,000 people.

“We’re expecting to get outspent 10-1. I’m sure he’ll flood with TV ads and mailers in the same way they always do. And we just need to raise the amount we need to contact our entire universe” of supporters, Rojas said, noting that Ocasio-Cortez raised roughly $400,000 by the end of the campaign, an amount that, at minimum, they’re hoping to raise in Delaware.

She said campaign volunteers are finding voters surprisingly open to a new senator. “It’s the LLC state, so I assumed people are moderate and centrist, but I think people are tired of somebody who votes with Trump 50 percent of the time,” Rojas said. (According to 538, Carper has voted with Trump 34 percent of the time, though that calculation includes uncontroversial votes on measures such as naming post offices. Elizabeth Warren is listed as having voted with Trump 9 percent of the time.)

Clinton carried the state in November over Trump, winning by 12 points, suggesting that in a strong Democratic year, Harris would have little problem topping her Republican opponent in November.

If Harris beats Carper, or runs close to him, the ramifications in the Senate will be seismic. The Senate Democratic Caucus is currently led by New Yorker Chuck Schumer, but behind-the-scenes jockeying to replace him should he fall or step aside is well underway. The most immediate applicant for the position is Washington Sen. Patty Murray. “Patty is constantly nipping at his heels: ‘We need to be firmer, we need more women in leadership,’ that sort of thing,” said one Democratic senator, speaking anonymously to openly discuss the internal jockeying. “But I don’t hear a lot of people clamoring for her as leader, or anybody else for that matter.”

One of the anybody-elses who has ambitions for leadership is Coons, who has carved out an image as a Democrat who works well with Republicans and has close relationships with the business interests prominent in Delaware. He has a policy that he will not co-sponsor legislation that does not have at least one Republican sponsor. Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, meanwhile, is angling to be the progressive choice for leader once the new generation takes over.

Knocking off Carper would also be a shot across the bow of Coons, a reminder to him that his seat is not his for life. (Coons was elected in a fluke, when Christine  “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell upset the broadly popular but moderate Mike Castle in the GOP primary in 2010, paving the way for an easy Coons win. He was re-elected handily in 2016.)

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., speaks with reporters after leaving a briefing of the full Senate by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, amid controversy over President Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey, at the Capitol, Thursday, May 18, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., speaks with reporters after leaving a briefing of the full Senate by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on May 18, 2017.

Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Harris has arrived where she is by a different route. She enlisted in the Air Force in 2001, returning to civilian life in 2008, at the height of the Great Recession, medically retired due to complications from the anthrax vaccine. She worked odd jobs to make it, everything from lawn mowing and auto maintenance to working the chicken frier at a gas station. All the while, she spent her spare time volunteering with the Red Cross or at homeless shelters. When Hurricane Katrina hit, she headed to New Orleans to rebuild homes with Habitat for Humanity, calling herself “an airman by day and a volunteer construction worker by night.” Recently divorced, she’s the mother of two young children.

That volunteering eventually morphed into becoming a full-time community organizer, working both for Achievement Matters, which aims to close the educational achievement gap, and with the Center for Popular Democracy. The tools she’s picked up as an organizer are now being put to work in her Senate race.

Correction: July 12, 2018, 5 p.m.
A previous version of this story stated that Kerri Evelyn Harris would be the first woman, first black person, and first openly LGBT candidate to be elected to statewide office in Delaware. In fact, she would be the first of U.S. senators from Delaware. Also, the story was updated to clarify that Sen. Tom Carper has voted with President Donald Trump 34 percent of the time, contrary to a source who said Carper votes with Trump 50 percent of the time.

Update: July 12, 2018, 5:45 p.m.
This story was updated to include that Sen. Tom Carper has also been endorsed by the Delaware Democratic Party. Also, this story was updated to include that Carper said he would not support any U.S. Supreme Court nominee until after November.

Top photos: Kerri Evelyn Harris, left, and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.

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