Democratic U.S. Senate Primary: Carper vs. Harris

DOVER — For much of 2010, Mike Castle was expected to cruise to victory in the race to fill the Senate seat vacated by Joe Biden when he became vice president.

Mr. Castle, then serving as the state’s lone congressional representative for the past 18 years, had held five different offices in Delaware, never losing an election.

Despite being a Republican in a state with a blue lean, he was popular among Delawareans, and polls had him defeating Democrat Chris Coons in the general election.

He never got the chance.

In what was perhaps the tea party movement’s biggest moment, Christine O’Donnell upset the former governor in the September primary, picking up 53 percent of the vote.

Eight years later, the parallels are obvious: A younger candidate who has never held office before is seeking to defeat a longtime politician in a Senate primary by painting his more moderate approach as a negative.

Whether Kerri Evelyn Harris is as successful in taking down Tom Carper as Ms. O’Donnell was in beating Mr. Castle will be decided Thursday.

A win by Ms. Harris, a 38-year-old community organizer, would be a colossal upset and another victory for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which has already demonstrated its force this year, most notably in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win over Joe Crowley in June in New York’s 14th Congressional District.

But Delaware voters have a reputation as a moderate sort, and Sen. Carper says he has learned from Mr. Castle’s stunning defeat.

The 71-year-old Democrat, who is seeking his fourth term in the Senate, said he spoke with Mr. Castle earlier this year and asked his friend what he could do to avoid going down like Mr. Castle, taken out in a primary.

Tom Carper

The main takeaway from that talk, Sen. Carper said last week, is that he should not take anything for granted.

“I always outwork my opponent,” he said. “I cover this state. I love to campaign.”

Principles and policies

In July 2017, Sen. Carper told MSNBC he had been prepared to retire if Hillary Clinton won the presidency and Democrats took back the Senate in 2016. Of course, neither happened, and so the man who’s held elected office continuously for 42 years is looking to make it 48.

Despite his age, Sen. Carper said he remains highly motivated and in top condition, noting he wakes up early to work out before taking the train from Wilmington to Washington, returning more than 14 hours later.

“I will challenge anybody in this auditorium to keep up with me,” he said during a debate Monday.

Long one of Delaware’s most popular and well-known politicians, he has throughout his senatorial career championed a moderate approach, focusing on compromise with Republicans, sometimes to the displeasure of more liberal Delaware voters.

“I think more than ever we need people like me, Democrats and even some Republicans who are strong on principle but are willing to compromise on policy,” he said last week.

But that centrist approach has irked some on the left, who believe rapid, not gradual, change is needed.

Kerri Evelyn Harris

“The people of Delaware know what they want and need,” Ms. Harris said in an August interview. “They haven’t been asked. They haven’t been heard and they keep getting told, ‘Well, just keep waiting.’ We’re tired of waiting.

“He has a great record but every record also has a backstory, and it’s a backstory that people are starting to pay attention to. Has he made some decisions that have been good? Yes, but the problem is he’s made a lot that haven’t.”

Sen. Carper 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.

At the debate a few days later, she touched on that subject.

“We need diversity of experience,” Ms. Harris told the audience of hundreds. “It’s not good enough to have a Congress filled with career politicians who only see the world through one lens because that’s the lens they all share. There is room in the halls of Congress for a teacher, for a lifetime retail worker, for an autobody mechanic. There is room in the halls of Congress for you, you just have to have the heart.”

As he has come under fire from Ms. Harris, Sen. Carper has shifted to the left, most notably in his embrace of a $15 minimum wage just a few years after expressing skepticism over a $10.10 wage.

Unlike Ms. Harris, however, he believes the increase should be phased in over time — perhaps even a few years.

That reversal has Ms. Harris fearing the senator backs a higher wage only because it is politically expedient to do so. For his part, Sen. Carper said the decision is one he reached over the years and noted he has backed other efforts to help low-wage families, such as the earned income tax credit and community health centers.

He believes lawmakers should make efforts to provide health care to all but prefers to do so through the Affordable Care Act rather than Medicare for all, a favorite proposal of progressives, including Ms. Harris.

“Access isn’t enough, because the truth is, as a state, we have a very large population that has health care,” she said. “Eighty-five to 90 percent of us have health care. We just can’t use it because we can’t afford to use it.

“He doesn’t understand it. … I still have nerve damage that I have to get seen for and I can’t. My son has GI issues. He’s supposed to go every two weeks. We have to push it back becase I can’t pay $60 every time I go to a specialist. I have access, but it’s not accessible.”

Sen. Carper sees universal health care as a goal to strive for but one that is unrealistic.

“We have a moral imperative to the least of these in our society, but we don’t have unlimited resources,” he said.

While Sen. Carper is in favor of decriminalizing marijuana nationwide, Ms. Harris supports full legalization.

She doesn’t consider her policies far left, just ones that are best for and are popular with the average citizen.

Trump and the GOP

Both Ms. Harris and Sen. Carper strongly oppose President Donald Trump and had harsh words for him at the debate.

Sen. Carper was a leading opponent of former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who resigned in July over myriad allegations of misuse of taxpayer funds and ethical concerns.

“I knew that Mr. Pruitt and I would seriously disagree when it came to policy,” he said in a statement when Mr. Pruitt announced he would step down. “That was no surprise.

“But Mr. Pruitt’s brazen abuse of his position for his own personal gain has been absolutely astounding, rivaled only by the silence of far too many in Congress and in the White House who allowed Mr. Pruitt’s unethical, and, at times, possibly illegal behavior to go unchecked.

“History will not look kindly on this era: neither on Mr. Pruitt’s entirely irresponsible tenure nor on Congress’ abdication of its constitutional responsibilities all in order to protect political allies.”

According to FiveThirtyEight, the senator has voted in line with President Trump’s positions 35.5 percent of the time, about as often as he would be predicted to do based on the results of the 2016 presidential election in Delaware.

Sen. Carper voted against President Trump’s first Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, and has already come out in opposition to Brett Kavanaugh, who has been nominated for another vacant seat on the nation’s top court.

Ms. Harris has been critical of Sen. Carper for voting for the judge in 2006, when he was selected for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by President George W. Bush. He was one of four Democrats to back the nomination.

“If everybody’s viewing the world through the same lens, you get people like Kavanaugh because you spoke to somebody with your network and they said he’s a good guy,” Ms. Harris said.

For his part, Sen. Carper has described the decision as a mistake, saying at the debate he “sure as hell” won’t vote for him again.

Both believe President Trump is harming the United States, although neither is ready to commit to impeaching him should Democrats win back control of Congress.

Sen. Carper said lawmakers should let the investigation into potential collusion with Russia run its course, noting, “There’s probably going to be a fair amount of collateral damage in this investigation and there already has been.” Ms. Harris was willing to go a little further, saying there may be enough evidence to call for impeachment proceedings already but Congress should wait for more evidence from the probe led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Endgame

In addition being outgunned financially — $107,000 on hand for Ms. Harris versus $3.541 million for Sen. Carper as of Aug. 17 — Ms. Harris is at disadvantage when it comes to endorsements and staff experience. But despite that, she’s confident enthusiasm for her campaign is buiding exponentially.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, a darling of the progressive movement, attended town halls in Delaware with Ms. Harris Friday.

Perhaps feeling pressure in the toughest primary he’s had in decades, if not ever, Sen. Carper has called in the big guns of his own, receiving support from Mr. Biden.

Neither candidate is a native of Delaware. Ms. Harris grew up in New York and California and moved to Delaware after joining the Air Force in 2001, mere months before terrorists killed thousands in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. She was medically retired from the military in 2008 and then worked odd jobs before eventually becoming a community organizer.

Today, she lives in Dover.

She would be the first woman and first African-American Delaware has elected to the Senate (it sent its first in both categories to Congress in 2016) and would be one of the first openly gay Americans to ever be elected to Congress.

Sen. Carper was born in West Virginia, served in the Navy and moved to Delaware in 1973 to seek an MBA at the University of Delaware. In 1976, he was elected treasurer, a position to which he was subsequently reelected twice.

After much lobbying from Democrats, then Sen. Biden among them, he ran for the House in 1982. The young treasurer defeated Republican Rep. Tom Evans and went on to serve five terms before being elected governor in 1992.

As he seeks a fourth term in the Senate, he’s leaned heavily on his record and experience and has largely avoided criticizing Ms. Harris.

“I think we both know what the right thing to do is,” he said. “The question is, can we get it done?”

Ms. Harris has stepped up her criticism of Sen. Carper in recent weeks, highlighting his vote for Judge Kavanaugh, his campaign contributions from corporate political action committees and some of his other votes.

“People are seeing in this campaign and in me representation that is them. The working class, that understands that when legislation needs to be written it has to be written for them,” she said.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday.

 

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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