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Next Test for Progressive Democrats as Kerri Harris Aims to Oust Corporate-Friendly Tom Carper in Delaware

"The debate between Harris and Carper is really a microcosm of the fight for the soul of the party."

Kerri Evelyn Harris

In Delaware's Democratic primary on Thursday, progressive community activist Kerri Evelyn Harris is challenging Sen. Tom Carper, a three-term "business-friendly moderate." (Photo: Kerri Evelyn Harris/Facebook)

In a Democratic primary race that has provoked comparisons to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's shocking victory over longtime Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) in June, voters in Delaware headed to the polls on Thursday to determine whether community activist Kerri Evelyn Harris will succeed in ousting Sen. Tom Carper, the incumbent three-term "business-friendly" centrist.

Although Harris is still being described by many political reporters as a "long-shot"polling (pdf) conducted in July had Carper leading by double-digits—the race still has garnered national attention from journalists as well as the progressive groups that are backing her, including Our Revolution, which urged voters to cast their ballots:

Reporting from Delaware on Thursday, The Intercept's Ryan Grim wrote in his email newsletter, "Polls I've been briefed on have Carper winning in a landslide, but I'm here anyway, because it's impossible to predict what could happen, and the debate between Harris and Carper is really a microcosm of the fight for the soul of the party."

Harris, according to her campaign platform, supports a Medicare for All healthcare system, safeguarding women's rights, ending mass incarceration, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, transitioning away from fossil fuels, holding Wall Street accountable, protecting victims of sexual violence in the military, and emphasizing diplomacy over military actions to resolve issues with foreign nations.

Her challenge to Carper "did not initially attract as much attention as intraparty brawls in states like Michigan and New York," noted Dave Weigel at The Washington Post, "but the same organizers who've powered other upsets and insurgent campaigns this cycle have moved into Democratic-leaning Delaware." Key members of Ocasio-Cortez's campaign staff as well as Claire Sandberg, digital director for Abdul El-Sayed's unsuccessful bid to serve as Michgian's next governor, have thrown their weight behind Harris.

"If Kerri wins, this is bigger than Ocasio-Cortez. It's going to be huge," Nasim Thompson of Justice Democrats—which has also endorsed Harris—posited in an interview with Politico. "It's going to reverberate just like, if not more than, Ocasio-Cortez."

Like Ocasio-Cortez, Harris is an underdog with a history of serving her community. While Carper, the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has developed a reputation for his bipartisan efforts, Harris has campaigned as someone who can relate to voters better than the 71-year-old incumbent, because she knows what it's like to struggle to meet her basic needs and those of her family.

As Daniel Marans reported for The Huffington Post on Thursday:

Harris, 38, the daughter of a white mother and a black father, both schoolteachers, is a recently divorced gay woman who left her Air Force career in 2008 when a bad reaction to an anthrax vaccine permanently sidelined her. 

Harris has struggled to provide for her two children, now ages 8 and 1, taking jobs as a cook at a gas station and as an auto mechanic. ...Although Harris is still completing her bachelor's degree, she now has steady work as an organizer in Wilmington. She leads the Achievement Matters program to lower the educational achievement gap between different parts of Delaware's biggest city, and she helps low-income families address their needs through her work with the Delaware Alliance for Community Advancement.

Harris sees her biracial heritage, military service, and personal experience with economic scarcity as the sort of diverse perspective that makes her a natural organizer. Even her stint at a predominantly white auto body shop helped her speak to reluctant audiences about building working-class solidarity.

That Harris "happens to be a biracial, gay Air Force veteran...may be less remarkable than her humble financial circumstances," Marans pointed out in a series of tweets. "Many reporters have noted this about Harris, but it bears repeating because so few members of Congress lack college degrees or huge resources needed to run for office—take time off work, hit up rich friends for money etc."

Money has played a significant role in the race. Marans also noted that "depending on how you count the money, Tom Carper has raised at least 25 times as much as Kerri Harris," and unlike Carper, she has refused to accept contributions from corporate political action committees (PACs)—a topic that was addressed at a sold-out debate between the pair of Democrats in late August.

At a Wednesday night rally where Harris was joined by Our Revolution president Nina Turner, the candidate delivered "an address that was notably edgier than last month's one-and-only debate," telling the crowd "that she made the decision to run after she looked closely at Carper's record and didn't like what she saw," Briahna Gray reported for The Intercept.

"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," Gray continued. "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."

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