WILMINGTON — Sen. Tom Carper held off a challenge from the left Thursday in a race that drew national attention. The longtime politician defeated community activist Kerri Evelyn Harris by pulling in 64.6 percent of the vote to earn the Democratic Party nod as he seeks his fourth term in the Senate.
He will face Republican Rob Arlett, Libertarian Nadine Frost and Green Party candidate Demitri Theodoropoulos in the November general election, where he will be heavily favored.
A victory by Ms. Harris would have been the progressive movement’s biggest shocker this year and the most surprising electoral outcome in modern Delaware history. Instead, Sen. Carper showed why he is the safest bet in Delaware politics and why he has never lost an election in 42 years.
In a victory speech, he congratulated both Ms. Harris and Mr. Arlett and pledged to continue campaigning hard and pushing back against President Donald Trump. Democrats must come together over the ensuing two months, he told the 60 or so people gathered in the luxury box at Frawley Stadium.
“I think it’s fine that we look for ways to compromise on policy but maintain our principles,” he said. “We share the same principles in this party. We share the same principles in this party.
“We want everybody to have quality, affordable health care. … We want to make sure that the longest-running economic expansion in the history of this country isn’t cut short because of foolish, foolish economic policies and trade policies of this administration.”
This primary was in many ways reminiscent of the 2010 Senate primary between Republicans Mike Castle and Christine O’Donnell, a race that saw Ms. O’Donnell shock Mr. Castle, a former governor who had never lost an election, by running to his right.
The liberal wing of the Democratic Party aimed to do to Sen. Carper what the tea party movement did to Mr. Castle, but they failed to muster the support in a state known for a bipartisan, compromise-based approach to politics.
Ms. Harris had gone after Sen. Carper over his ties to corporations and big money and his support for some Republican nominees over the years, arguing Delawareans need big changes. She sought to paint Sen. Carper’s centrist approach and his decades in office as negatives, saying he is out of touch with the masses.
He has been in office “for so long that it makes it so that he doesn’t understand what it’s like for the rest of us,” she said last month.
Among the centerpieces of her campaign were Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage and “bailing out” the millions of Americans with student debt.
Thursday, she acknowledged the defeat but noted the campaign reverberated with many across the state.
“While we did not win the primary election, in many ways we won much more,” she said in a statement. “We activated thousands of supporters who had previously not been politically engaged. We mobilized many among the majority of Delawareans who support a $15 minimum wage, lower costs for prescription drugs, and a clean energy economy — and we’ll continue to advocate and engage those voters throughout the fall and beyond.”
The community organizer, who was medically retired from the Air Force in 2008, had sought to follow in the footsteps of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive candidates who upended more moderate incumbents in primaries this year.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, the most well-known of those candidates, campaigned on behalf of Ms. Harris last week. Ms. Harris had traveled to New York earlier this year to support Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated Joe Crowley, one of the House’s highest-ranking Democrats, in New York’s 14th Congressional District in June.
Ms. Harris has contrasted her experiences with Sen. Carper’s by describing herself as an average citizen who has struggled to get by, at one point working a series of odd jobs, such as cutting grass, repairing cars and making food in a chain convenience store.
Sen. Carper has staunchly defended his record while admitting mistakes in some areas, such as voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2006, and shifting to the left in others, like embracing a $15 minimum wage.
The most powerful and iconic active Delaware politician, Sen. Carper received support from a wide variety of groups and individuals, such as the state Democratic Party, a host of unions and former Vice President Joe Biden. He heavily outraised Ms. Harris, having $3.541 million on hand as of Aug. 17, while she had $107,000.
His main selling point to voters has been his years in office — 10 years in the House and eight as governor in addition to 18 in the Senate — where he said he worked to create jobs and improve the livelihood of Delawareans.
“I think we both know the right thing to do,” he said at a debate last week. “One of us had the opportunity to actually do it. That’s what I’ve done, and that’s what I will continue to do.”
Democratic Party Chairman Erik Raser-Schramm in a statement urged Democrats to unite against a common enemy.
“We now have 60 days to come together as Democrats and do the hard work necessary to thwart the GOP’s extreme agenda here in Delaware,” he said. “And make no mistake, with Trump’s former Delaware campaign chairman espousing divisive anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric atop the Republican ticket, the fight to take back our country has officially come to Delaware.”
Gov. John Carney, who attended Sen. Carper’s victory party, said the outcome was good for the state and the country.
“We need people like him to take on the Trump administration on environmental policy,” he said. “We’ve got the issues now that are emerging with the new Supreme Court justice and who knows what else.
Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.