DOVER, Del. (AP) — As outbreaks of antiestablishment activism roil the Democratic Party nationwide, a veteran Delaware political leader who’s never been beaten faces a primary election challenge from an insurgent who’s never run for office.
Kerri Evelyn Harris, whose resume includes loading giant Air Force cargo planes, frying chicken at a convenience store chain and working as an auto body mechanic, is seeking in Thursday’s Democratic primary to unseat three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, one of the most successful politicians in Delaware history.
“We absolutely are fighting for the soul of the Democrat Party,” said Harris.
Carper, undefeated since 1976 when he was first elected state treasurer, is taking it in stride.
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“It’s not like I’ve never been primaried before,” said Carper, who served five terms in the U.S. House and two as governor before being elected to the Senate in 2000.
Carper has a huge fundraising advantage, having raised more than $1.3 million this year as of mid-August, compared to a little more than $120,000 by Harris. He has far outspent her.
Harris is among a wave of young activist Democrats, emboldened by the 2016 presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. They have sent shock waves through the party establishment around the U.S., starting in June with a New York primary victory by 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, 39, riding an insurgent wave, scored a stunning victory last week in Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. And on Tuesday, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley beat longtime Rep. Mike Capuano in a closely watched Democratic primary.
Now, it’s the 38-year-old Harris’ turn in the spotlight, a place she never expected to be.
Born in New York to a biracial couple, Harris attended high school in California before joining the Air Force. She worked as a loadmaster at Dover Air Force Base until 2008, when she was medically retired after suffering an adverse reaction to the anthrax vaccine. She then worked a variety of jobs and served on the state Human Relations Commission before becoming a political organizer.
Last year, after trying unsuccessfully to find someone to challenge Carper, she took on the job herself.
“This is a fight to prove that we are a party of the people,” said Harris. She has painted Carper, 71, as an out-of-touch career politician doing the bidding of corporations and their political action committees.
Carper, meanwhile, sees himself as a centrist able to work in a bipartisan way.
“Across the country, we have a number of folks that are on the progressive wing of the party, really the far-left flank of our party. Some of them have little tolerance for centrists,” added Carper, who touts his ability to work with both Democrats and Republicans.
But Harris says Carper hasn’t done enough for everyday people, and that too many within the Democratic Party’s core constituency have become marginalized.
“He has definitely become a corporatist,” she said, noting that Carper voted for the Keystone XL pipeline. “His entire career, if you look at it, has been centered around making sure corporations thrive, and almost a Republican idea of there will be a trickle-down effect. We know that trickle down doesn’t work.”
Harris’ campaign shares elements with those of other new activists, including government-paid health care for all, a $15 hourly minimum wage and abolishing the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Harris also favors eliminating all student debt.
“I see myself a part of the movement for the people,” she said. “It’s moved beyond Bernie. There’s people in all parties who are ready for this.”
Harris is backed by a political action committee called Justice Democrats, started by organizers of Sanders’ presidential campaign. Twenty-five of its endorsed candidates are on the November general election ballot in states across the country. Ocasio-Cortez has visited Delaware to support Harris.
While Harris rejects the notion that she’s a socialist, it remains to be seen how well her message will play among the more than 327,000 registered Democrats eligible to vote in Thursday’s closed primary.
“Delaware’s not New York City,” Carper said. “And in most of these races around the country where you’ve got the progressive, far-left candidates running against more moderate Democrats, for the most part the more moderate Democrats are winning those races.”
He retains the support of the Democratic establishment. Among those endorsing him are former vice president and U.S. Senate colleague Joe Biden, the Delaware Democratic Party, the AFL-CIO, the state teachers’ union and Delaware’s largest daily newspaper.
Carper also has been endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights advocacy organization, even though Harris could make history as the first openly gay person elected to Congress from Delaware.
“We all want the same thing,” Carper said. “We have maybe different ideas on how to get there.”
The winner of Thursday’s Democratic primary in Delaware will face the winner the GOP primary between former PayPal executive Gene Truono and Sussex County councilman Rob Arlett, who was state campaign chairman for Donald Trump in 2016.