NEWARK, Del.—Everyone who had gathered inside the Trabant Theatre at the University of Delaware on a swampy, wet Friday afternoon before the Labor Day weekend found a sheet of white paper tucked under their chairs.
On it was a list of cities in the First State where people were encouraged to sign up and commit to phone-banking and canvassing. Campaign staff and volunteers told the audience of around 300 that they had a goal of 200 shifts and their efforts in a state of less than a million people could push another new face of the progressive movement roiling the country over the line.
Her name is Kerri Evelyn Harris, a 38-year-old Air Force veteran, community organizer, half-white, half-black, (she jokes she passes as Hispanic), openly LGBTQ woman who looks and sounds next to nothing like anyone currently serving in the United States Senate, let alone the 71-year-old long-term incumbent she’s up against: Tom Carper, a political institution in the state of Delaware.
“We are at a place right now where we have a big decision to make, if we want change we must choose change,” Harris told the audience during the school’s first week back from vacation, where outside cars packed the road leading to the campus. “It’s easy to say, talk about a person’s experience, but remember, we have a lot of experience in Congress and that experience has not got us anywhere.”
What the elected body is missing, is the perspective of working people, Harris argued. That career politicians can’t understand the struggle of those left behind who can’t afford healthcare or sending their kids to college like she could understand. That her experience working a number of jobs in the state, auto mechanic included, puts her in direct touch with the core of what would help Americans not heard by the regular haunts of the nation’s capital who have succumbed to the crippling influence of corporate money.
Early on in the campaign, Harris, who intones with the quiet urgency of a preacher, was dipping into a quarter jar she keeps just to pay for gas for the campaign. The off-brand diapers she purchases for her one-year-old are $15 dollars, she said, the cost of working two full hours at the state’s minimum wage of $8.25.
She represents, in part, a new brand of Democratic challengers holding unapologetically left views—Harris calls them “the people’s issues”—invigorated by a climate where the party’s base is dissatisfied with the old guard and hopeful of ousting those entrenched electeds who have lost touch with what’s important.
Joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old candidate from New York’s 14th Congressional District who upended the political universe this summer by defeating the two-decade incumbent Joe Crowley with a hardscrabble campaign in which she was outspent by a 10-1 margin, the two women traversed Delaware on Friday advocating as much for a Harris win as for the building of a broader movement that would extend beyond the confines of one single race.
They share a working-class background and an issue set that includes Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage and the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. Where they differ is on the distinction of being a Democratic Socialist, a phrase in and of itself that has taken on a lot of different meanings for a lot of different people: Ocasio-Cortez says she aligns with the term while Harris says she doesn’t necessarily consider herself one.
But above and beyond the policy kinship, the New Yorker showed up less than a week before the September 6 primary because Harris had shown up for her.
“Kerri was there,” Ocasio-Cortez told the crowd, describing how Harris and members of her team paid attention and campaigned for her in New York, when many others did not. “She had my back, and I’m here to have hers because that’s how the progressive movement really works.”
This new movement has had mixed success in terms of strictly electoral results. But the kinds of candidates who have won primaries this season are undoubtedly more to the left than where a majority of the party stood just two years ago, signifying the influence that these broader ideas have had on mobilizing a coalition of voters. And public polling is seemingly failing at predicting outcomes in a number of races. Just look at Florida, where last week Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum won a statewide primary for the gubernatorial nomination without leading in a single poll before the day of the vote.
“Polls generate models of likely voters and who is turning out this year is not the likely voter,” said Ocasio-Cortez, explaining the phenomenon to The Daily Beast. “I think when you have a candidate like Kerri, she energizes. I was just knocking doors with Kerri this morning and the way that people respond to her is not a way that people usually respond to your typical politician. And I think that people like Kerri inspire unlikely voters which is exactly who polling companies don’t count in their models.”
By the numbers themselves, Ocasio-Cortez was not supposed to win; not by a long shot. And while there is not much publicly available polling for the Delaware contest, Harris is as much of an underdog as one can be against Carper, who has held office—from treasurer to Congressman to governor to senator—since 1977 and has never lost a race. He has raised over $3.5 million compared to her $114,000, has universal name recognition and is well-liked in the state. Harris doesn’t take corporate PAC or lobbyist money, which she often says would, at the very least, create the perception that she’s beholden to someone other than voters. The odds are against her, but no one in the state’s political universe forgets when Republican Christine O’Donnell upset a former governor in the 2010 primary.
And perhaps the late boost from Ocasio-Cortez, whose presence drew nearly as much international media as domestic on Friday—so much so that an aide had to occasionally step in and request questions from state-based outlets during scrums with reporters—can make a difference in a late sleepy Thursday primary.
She is far from the only figure in the progressive movement training their sights on Delaware. The chance of peeling off a Senate seat is a major coup on which no one wants to miss out.
As The Intercept first reported, not only are members of Ocasio-Cortez’s team and staffers for Justice Democrats, the insurgent group that initially recruited her to run, on the ground helping out in the final days of the campaign, but also Claire Sandberg who served as deputy campaign manager for Abdul El-Sayed’s gubernatorial bid in Michigan and People for Bernie founder Winnie Wong have lent a hand.
“Taking on an incumbent is never easy, and there’s no doubt that Kerri is massively underfunded, even with our infusion of support, compared to Carper’s millions raised from the financial, insurance, and pharmaceutical industries,” Sandberg told The Daily Beast. “But this year, it seems like anything is possible.”
Wong worked on a recent biographical digital ad for Harris, which in conjunction with a recent debate between her and Carper, has helped earn the campaign more national attention.
Additionally, the Working Families Party, with which Sandberg is working, has gotten heavily involved with an anticipated total expenditure of $100,000 including a canvass operation, digital ads and three flights of mail. They are hoping to reach more than 40,000 voters in the state, which they think will be more than enough for Harris to win. (In the 2012 Democratic primary, Carper won a whopping 88 percent with just about 44,000 votes).
"We're behind Kerri because she'll fight every day for a Delaware that works for the many, not the wealthy and powerful few,” Rob Duffey, communications director for WFP told The Daily Beast. “Tom Carper has repeatedly put big banks and drug companies ahead of his constituents, and working families in Delaware deserve better. We're working around the clock to let voters know about Kerri and her platform that puts working families first."
But the incumbent senator is no slouch either. Carper is an active campaigner, who many voters have known for years and reminded them in an ad recently that he wakes up at the crack of dawn before traveling from Delaware to the nation’s capital.
"I am not frustrated," Carper said in the recent debate, in which Harris hit him for voting to approve the Keystone Pipeline and voting for President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to a federal appeals court in 2006. "I’m motivated. I’m not sad. I’m mad. And I’m not fed up. I’m fired up."
And while Harris has Ocasio-Cortez, Carper has the backing of former Vice President Joe Biden, such an institution in Delaware that they named the Wilmington train station after him. His supportive robocall has played on local radio in the state in recent days.
At a second event on Friday in Wilmington at the Kingswood Community Center, some voters who packed the room were still figuring out who they would cast a vote for, but otherwise were receptive to Harris’ message.
But Ashley Brown, a 30-year-old scientist who works in Philadelphia was fully onboard after following Harris on Twitter a few weeks ago.
“I would like a Democrat in office but I would also like somebody more progressive,” Brown told The Daily Beast, after saying she hadn’t been in Delaware to vote for Carper previously but had voted for the state's other senator Chris Coons. “The Democrats aren’t doing enough to fight [Trump’s] nominees. I feel like you can’t work with somebody that’s a bigot.”
She said she wasn’t sure if other people were too keyed into the contest, noting that she hadn’t seen many signs for either candidate in her neighborhood.
A Democrat working on the Harris campaign, requesting to speak on background, said that her most obvious challenge is name recognition but that voters who have been reached tend to agree with her policy stances.
Harris’ stump speech is peppered with lines that empower the audience to take politics into their own hands, as both she and Ocasio-Cortez encouraged those gathered at Friday’s events to run for office if they wanted to. And if they elect her first, wielding this newfound power, she promises to try and use it responsibly.
“Power doesn’t matter if you don’t wield it for the people,” Harris said.