Left looks to Delaware for next win over establishment

Two huge upsets by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley over older white men in high-profile Democratic primaries have put the spotlight squarely on Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperSenate subcommittee: IRS should increase oversight of tax-prep companies in Free File program Senate report: Chinese telecom firms operated in US without proper oversight for decades House Judiciary seeks briefing on Trump order to slash regs to assist the economy MORE (D-Del.), who faces his own primary test on Thursday against Kerri Evelyn Harris. 

Carper, 71, who has held his seat since 2001, previously served two terms as Delaware’s governor and before that served 10 years in the House. 

He’s the epitome of the political establishment in his state, and widely seen as an exemplar of the “Delaware Way.” He hasn’t faced a serious primary challenge since he won his Senate seat.


Harris, 38, is a community activist and Air Force veteran who has received backing from Ocasio-Cortez. She would also become the first LGBTQ person of color to serve in the U.S. Senate should she win in November.

In challenging Carper, she has sought to cast him as an entrenched politician who has embraced Delaware’s corporate entities and failed to stand up for progressive values.

Though Harris’s bid was initially seen as a long shot, the string of recent victories by progressive candidates have shined a spotlight on the race, with observers questioning whether Carper will be the next white, older male politician to fall to a political newcomer.

“We need diversity in experience. It’s not good enough to have a Congress filled with career politicians who can only see the world through one lens, because that’s the lens they all share,” Harris said during a recent debate with Carper. 

The winner of Thursday’s Democratic primary will face off against one of three Republican candidates – finance attorney Gene Truono, Sussex County Councilman Rob Arlett or perennial candidate Rocky De La Fuente – who are vying for their party’s nomination. 

But whoever emerges as the Democratic candidate would likely be the favorite in the deep-blue state. The Cook Political Report, an election handicapper, currently rates the race as a “solid” Democratic seat.

In challenging the more moderate Carper, Harris has cast herself as a member of a new generation of leaders, embracing progressive proposals ranging from “Medicare for all” to a $15-an-hour minimum wage. 

She has taken a more critical position on policies toward corporations in a state that has more than 1 million incorporated businesses, and she has rebuked Carper as too cozy with corporations.

Harris has also gotten help on the campaign trail from Ocasio-Cortez, a fellow first-time candidate who has emerged as an influential force in the progressive movement since she won a shocking upset victory over Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) in their primary in June.

Ocasio-Cortez has appeared at events in Delaware with Harris and has dispatched former campaign volunteers to the state. 

Harris is also hoping to boost turnout among minority voters in a state where nearly a quarter of the population is black and just over 9 percent are Hispanic or Latino.

Yet whether a progressive upstart can defeat Carper remains in doubt. 

Delaware has a long history of embracing political dynasties and incumbents. In 1992, then-Gov. Mike Castle (R) ran for the House seat held at the time by Carper, and Carper, in turn, mounted a bid for the governor’s mansion – a move known to political observers in the state as “The Swap.”

Since his days as governor, Carper has emerged as a sort of kingmaker in Delaware politics: Leo Strine Jr., the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, served as counsel to Carper during his tenure as governor; the current secretary of state, Jeffrey Bullock, was the former governor’s chief of staff.

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The insular nature of the state’s politics is known widely as the “Delaware Way,” a principle rooted in the idea that Delaware’s small size has bred tight-knit political networks and a genteel form of bipartisanship unique to the First State. 

Carper also remains well liked in Delaware. His political allies point to him as a tested advocate for the state with more than 40 years of experience in government, while Harris, they said, has no record to run on.

“She doesn’t talk about Delaware,” one Carper campaign aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the race candidly, told The Hill. “There’s hardly any real examples of things she wants to do in the state.”

Carper is far ahead of Harris in the money race as well. The senator has raked in more than $3 million this cycle, according to his federal filings. Harris, on the other hand, reported raising a little more than $114,000. 

At the same time, Carper has the backing of an influential political figure of his own: former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE (D), who represented Delaware in the Senate alongside Carper for eight years and recently recorded a robocall for the incumbent.

Katie Wilson, a spokeswoman for Carper’s campaign, said the senator “always runs like his opponents are 10 feet tall and he’s 20 points behind,” adding that the campaign had been running digital ads across the web and was focusing the brunt of its efforts on meeting with voters and getting people to the ballot box.

But backers of Harris see a prime opportunity nonetheless as anti-incumbent fervor has emerged as a powerful force in this year’s Democratic primaries, with upstart progressive candidates beating out entrenched incumbents in races nationwide. 

Carper is an especially tempting target given he is seen as the embodiment of the “Delaware Way,” a culture that critics say is engendering an echo chamber among political elites, while deterring challenges from newcomers.

“Carper has developed his political ideology through this lens,” said Drew Serres, Harris’s campaign manager. “But it’s been hard for him to look at other ideas.”

Harris’s candidacy has gained attention after other seemingly long-shot candidates have gone on to stun the political status quo, including Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated No. 4-ranking House Democrat Crowley, and Pressley, who defeated 10-term incumbent Michael CapuanoMichael (Mike) Everett CapuanoInside the progressive hunt for vulnerable House Democrats Progressive mayor launches primary challenge to top Ways and Means Democrat Ex-GOP Rep. Roskam joins lobbying firm MORE (D-Mass.) on Tuesday. 

“It’s a state that likes its Delaware Way,” said Nancy Karibjanian, the director of the Center for Political Communication at the University of Delaware.  “And if there’s an upset on Thursday, I think the Delaware Way is over.”

Like Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley, Harris would also join a growing list of minority candidates to emerge from the primaries, including Democratic gubernatorial nominees Ben Jealous in Maryland, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida. 

Harris’s allies say that, even if her bid to oust Carper fails, she will have managed to change the state of play in Delaware by raising issues that the state’s political establishment has long been loath to address. 

Her support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage has pushed Carper to adopt the issue as part of his own platform, they argue. 

And recently, Carper co-sponsored a measure that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, marking the first time in his Senate career that he has signed on to such legislation. Harris supports legalization.

“If you want to win in Delaware now, you’re going to have to adopt some of these positions going forward,” said Serres.