On the eve of Thursday’s Democratic primary contest between Kerri Harris and Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, a crowd of about 100 gathered in a grassy, open-air courtyard in the middle of downtown Wilmington to rally for the challenger. The modest but enthusiastic crowd was pressed on all sides by humid, unmoving air and revivalist architecture. The flags at ground level remained limp as an energetic band went to work stirring up the crowd.
In an address that was notably edgier than last month’s one-and-only debate, Harris told her supporters that she made the decision to run after she looked closely at Carper’s record and didn’t like what she saw. With a threadbare campaign against a well-known and well-liked incumbent, she’s gambling that her message can get out to enough voters before the polls close on Thursday.
She pointed specifically to his vote in 2006 for Brett Kavanaugh, his vote for the Keystone XL pipeline, and his vote against a bill that would allow drugs to be imported from Canada at a lower cost — a choice that Harris said is related to his proximity to the pharmaceutical industry. (Carper was one of 13 Democrats to vote against that bill, giving Republicans a majority. Cory Booker, famously, was another).
During her remarks, Harris acknowledged that she’s voted for Carper in the past because he was the only choice. But now, she said, voters have a better option. She argued that his decades of experience mean that Carper had “decades to get it right,” and went on to ask: “If you’re ‘not getting it right in over 40 years in office, what makes you think that six more years is gonna get it done?” If Carper’s moved left of late, Harris said he’s done so only in response to the pressures of her campaign. If he wins, she asked, who will hold him accountable then?
Harris talks a lot about the price of everyday household items. Diapers. Gas. Groceries. “Three dollars,” she recites often, recalling the price of bread. A trivial amount to some. But as Harris points out, that’s half-an-hour of work at the federal minimum wage. A box of diapers is two hours of work. Child care, she says, costs easily one week of wages. Doing this practical math, it’s easy to see how quickly expenses add up, and how little $15 an hour really is. The problem, she says, is that people have too much experience in Washington, and not enough experience with the value of a dollar. “They’re telling you that you don’t know the answers to your community,” she said last night. “They’re telling us that we don’t know how to stretch a dollar? They’re millionaires who can’t balance the budget!”
Whatever the result on Thursday, Harris has shaken the political foundations of Delaware. Her run has been met with umbrage by the Democratic establishment, accustomed to a wait-your-turn, get-along political culture. “This is relatively new to us and it means that a younger generation of candidates view themselves as not being willing to work their way up through elections and they want to go straight for primarying our most senior elected official,” Democratic Sen. Chris Coons complained to the New York Times.
On Tuesday night, Ayanna Pressley made headlines by besting incumbent Mike Capuano to become the first African-American elected to represent Massachusetts in the House of Representatives. Pressley was often described as running to the left of her opponent in may respects, but Capuano’s support of Palestinian rights, his broadly progressive record on foreign policy, and longtime support of “Medicare for All” meant that her victory was bittersweet for some. The race was not quite the clean battle between an incumbent, corporate-backed Democrat and progressive insurgent than has become a popular framing device in the months following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s June victory.
But in today’s election between Kerri Harris and Tom Carper, that framing is picture-perfect.
First, the stakes are high: This is competition for a seat in the 100-member Senate — not the 435 person House of Representatives. A progressive win today would have a bigger national impact and huge implications for the progressive movement. The challenge has implications beyond Carper. Coons, who has ambitions to become Senate majority leader, has a similarly corporate-friendly approach to politics, and would push the party in that direction were he to ascend to the top ranks of leadership. Harris’s strong run, and Coons’s evident frustration at the new world she has helped create, alters the political calculation for him.
Second, Carper has served in the Senate for 18 years, and, for decades before that, acted as governor of the state and as Delaware’s sole representative in the House. He’s backed by Joe Biden, whose name graces the Amtrak station I rode in on, while Harris claims that the endorsements of progressive groups like Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party and People for Bernie. Carper also picked up the endorsement of fellow tristate Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
Third, unlike Capuano, Carper can claim few progressive bona fides. He frequently evokes his environmental record, but as Harris often points out, he voted in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline and has an inconsistent record on those environmental issues that don’t directly implicate the state or its coastline. He voted to confirm Energy Secretary Rick Perry and supported Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the federal bench in 2006; he does not support “Medicare for All,” instead choosing to focus on protecting the Affordable Care Act. He has been broadly supportive of military adventures abroad, including the war in Iraq.
Several locals I spoke to, including one who had hardly heard of Harris, offered that Carper is most familiar from his appearance at parades. They were skeptical of the extent to which his outreach extends beyond occasions of pomp and circumstance. But Delaware is such a small state, and he has been a public servant for so long that only Biden has higher name recognition.
That distinction is perhaps the sharpest with Ocasio-Cortez’s race. Joe Crowley had been serving in office in Queens since the 1980s, but he wasn’t terribly well-known among voters, making him that much more vulnerable.
Delaware’s proximity to the city could even influence turnout. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles play their first game of the new season Thursday night, with kickoff at 8:20 p.m. Some fans who may have planned to vote after work might head home instead. The polls close at 8:00 p.m.
So the question remains: Will her message turn out enough people to secure a win?
A private survey completed last month found Carper ahead of Harris by an extraordinarily wide margin, according to three sources who briefed The Intercept. His approval rating was as high as 80 percent, but fell dramatically when voters learned of his record on criminal justice and his support of Kavanaugh in 2006.
Carper also stood in the way of the public health insurance option during the Obamacare debate, and Harris is able to make the health care crisis immediate in contrast to her opponent, who seems satisfied with bolstering the status quo. When asked about health care in last month’s debate, Carper highlighted his work on the ACA and stressed his efforts to protect it against attacks from Donald Trump. But both Wednesday night and during the debate, Harris emphasized that 80 to 90 percent of people in Delaware already have insurance. According to Harris, the issue isn’t “access.” It’s that people can’t afford their copays and medical bills. Health care is a “human right,” she said. “Medicare for All” is “necessary.”
Harris speaks with similar urgency about the opioid crisis. When asked during the debate what should be done, Carper once again defended the status quo, saying, “It’s not what we should be doing, it’s what we are doing,” before referencing the “huge” amount of Medicare money currently being spent on treatment, and citing pharmacy shopping as a key concern.
But rather than focusing on the addiction driven behavior of addicts, Harris asked Carper if he would support a reform bill modeled after the Ryan White Care Act, which provides care for about half a million people living with HIV or AIDS each year. In Delaware, Harris said during the debate, there are 2,000 people seeking treatment for opioid addiction, but fewer than 300 beds. The bill would authorize additional funding that would enable more lives to be saved. Would Carper support it?
He demurred. “This is good legislation,” he said. But it’s just an authorization bill, not an appropriation bill, meaning that money might not be delivered. He didn’t explain why he wouldn’t support it regardless.
On stage Wednesday night with Harris was Nina Turner, the head of Our Revolution, the group formed in the wake of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign for president. Turner said that Harris isn’t pursing this title for herself, but for the people, who have been “condemned to a system that made poverty a crime.”
She mentioned that Harris “doesn’t equivocate” on what matters.
Perhaps Harris’s approach is informed by her own experiences. As Harris puts it, she’s “ a whole bunch of otherness.” Half-black, half-white, a woman, gay, a veteran on medical discharge — she has no shortage of underrepresented and underserved perspectives. She speaks often of the “lenses” that candidates bring to the office, but in doing so, she references something much more specific and tangible than the vague experiences often associated with identity.
As she told me after the rally: “You know, I’m making a lot of history tomorrow when we win: A person of color, LGBTQ, woman, but we’re forgetting the one that unites us, and that’s the fact that I’m a working-class person with the experience to understand that the urgency of change is now, and that’s going to make all the difference.” She went on: “That’s why we’re going to be able to move counties that they said we could never move. We’re going to be able to move cities that people said we could never move. And I’m excited about that. And so when they talk about electability, they don’t know the people of Delaware.”
Her perspective as a woman informs her politics beyond the baseline pro-choice position of the Democratic establishment. Whereas in 2016, the first female presidential nominee chose Tim Kaine, with a dubious record on choice, as her running mate, Harris called to overturn the Hyde Amendment during the debate. Where Carper answered a question about women’s reproductive rights by saying it was “settled law” and women have “some freedoms” when it comes to choice, Harris pointed out that it’s easy for a man to see it that way. “I’m a woman, and I don’t feel like the law is settled. I don’t feel settled because as we’re sitting here and as women, we’re concerned about Brett Kavanaugh. … This is not settled. I don’t want some freedoms. I want all my freedoms. And every single woman does.”
She joined the Air Force mere months before 9/11 and was stationed in Dover, Delaware, where all those killed in action are brought upon return to the United States. Having worked through the wars that followed the September 11 attack, she became intimately familiar with the human cost of U.S. interventions overseas.
Around 2008, Harris had a bad reaction to the anthrax vaccine administered to service members. She suffered extensive nerve damage and was in a wheelchair for about a year. Harris was prescribed opiates to deal with the pain, and while she didn’t become dependent herself, she saw how easy it was for many in her position to become hooked. Perhaps this lens, combined with her perspective as a working-class person, is what makes her stance on health care and the drug crisis, minimum wage, and so many other issues that much more immediate.
By contrast, Carper’s working-class references date from nearly a century ago. During the debate, he evoked his parents, who were children of the Great Depression. Seeming to acknowledge they grew up in a very different time, he noted that they were expected to pay for college by working throughout school. Of course today, students routinely graduate with tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
But when the subject of student loans was raised by debate panelists, he pooh-poohed Harris’s argument that academic debt should be canceled. “I don’t have a magic wand that would enable us to do that,” he said. “It would cost a pretty penny.” Harris disagreed. “I appreciate again all of the things that you’ve done,” she said, respecting the state’s notorious standards of decorum, but “my concern is that when we talk about not having a magic wand, we found a way to bail out the banks. We need to figure out how to create that magic wand.” Not only for the benefit students, she said, but because research shows that by helping students, one helps the economy.
Harris’s consistent message was to put people first — even when it came to Delaware corporations, which drive so much of the state’s revenue. “When workers do well,” she said, “corporations do well — not the other way around.”
But the question remains whether enough people heard her message, and agreed with it, to turn out today.
Because of a lack of local television stations, the debate was only available online. A campaign volunteer was enthusiastic about the popularity of the livestream when I asked how many viewed it, but when I pressed for a number, she estimated that only 500 people watched live. In fact, outside of some clips, the debate isn’t available on YouTube and doesn’t appear to exist anywhere on the internet except in a post by the Delaware branch of USA Today’s online site.
And yet Harris’s campaign says it has communicated with over 100,000 voters, and cultivated over 800 volunteers. Harris told me that they’ve even been able to hire more paid staff — at $15 an hour she proudly noted. This despite rejecting corporate funds — unlike her opponent, who has dramatically outpaced her in fundraising. (And the debate itself was sold out.)
“We have changed the definition of what a viable candidate is,” said Harris. “I don’t have the money, I have the people.”
“I’ve been told that I’ve been outspent by 50 to 1. But we’ve out-knocked. We’ve out-called. We’ve out-texted. We’ve out-conversationed. We have shown that it is the power that is in the people that will move us in the polls and move us closer to change,” she said. Today, we’ll see if that’s enough.