Kerri Evelyn Harris keeps a photograph of herself with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez taped to a wall inside her campaign headquarters. She was standing next to it when she started to made bold predictions about the future of the Democratic Party.
“2018 is just the beginning,” she said of Ocasio-Cortez’s shock victory in New York over a House Democratic leader, a win Harris sees as only the start of the progressive insurgency against her party. “Every election cycle we’re just going to see more and more regular people running because they know they have the ability to serve their communities.”
Harris is trying to do her part to make history on Thursday, when she takes on incumbent Democratic Sen. Tom Carper in Delaware’s Senate primary. Her chances of victory are difficult to predict: By traditional measures, she’s a clear underdog, running against a better-funded, better-known incumbent, who is seeking his fourth term in the Senate after also serving as governor.
But Ocasio-Cortez was once regarded as a longshot, as was another Democratic candidate, Ayanna Pressley, who pulled off a shocker of her own Tuesday when she defeated longtime incumbent Rep. Michael Capuano in Massachusetts.
To many grassroots progressives and top Democrats, Harris’s prediction is the bigger question for a party engaged in a tense internal struggle over its direction.
Are the successes in places such as New York’s 14th Congressional District and Florida’s gubernatorial primary (where Democrat Andrew Gillum last week came from behind for a win) isolated to this moment — or do they signal a broader shift in the party where a flood of aggressively liberal, grassroots candidates are set to primary and even defeat Democratic incumbents across the map?
“This year has shown that candidates who are giving voice to those values can win even in tough races, even when they’re outspent,” said Joe Dinkin, national campaigns director for the progressive Working Families Party, which has endorsed Harris and spent on her behalf. “And I think we’ll see more of it.”
Progressive insurgents haven’t mounted successful campaigns in many 2018 primaries — Harris, in fact, is the only serious challenger to a sitting Democratic senator this year. Even in a trio of open seats, in Nevada, Arizona, and Tennessee, establishment-backed candidates faced no serious opposition in a primary.
Party leaders have watched most (though not all) of the candidates they prefer in battleground House races, those who will determine control of the chamber’s majority in 2019, win their primaries.
But House races in safer districts, including the ones won by Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez, have seen underdog progressive candidates win instead. And gubernatorial races from Florida to Maryland (where former NAACP head Ben Jealous is the Democratic nominee) to Georgia (where Stacey Abrams is the nominee) have seen the liberal candidate emerge victorious.
Harris’s own policy platform closely resembles those of these successful candidates, an agenda of liberalism that includes single-payer health care, legalizing marijuana, and ending mass incarceration.
The 38-year-old Air Force veteran and community organizer also supports abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, a policy that — even more than single-payer health care — unsettles party leaders who worry it will alienate non-liberal voters.
“I see a bunch of people who are afraid to take on the fight, who are afraid to do what’s right,” said Harris, arguing that it was the responsibility of lawmakers to “educate the people you are serving” about policies they might disagree with.
Harris was talking in her headquarters here shortly before she would encourage about a dozen supporters to knock on voters’ doors on her behalf, a get-out-the-vote effort four days before the primary. Person-to-person communication by volunteers is about the only thing the campaign can afford. Harris said it hasn’t even had the money to conduct a single poll, much less run TV ads.
Harris has received help from Working Families Party, which has invested $100,000 on outreach efforts such as digital ads and direct mail. Carper, meanwhile, has spent $1.5 million this election cycle, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Harris went knocking on voters’ doors in a leafy African-American neighborhood here in the state’s largest city. She pitched voters on a message of ending mass incarceration, protecting immigrants, and raising the minimum wage to $15 — all while arguing that Carper has been in office too long to understand their needs.
She even spent a few minutes talking with a reporter and voters about the movie “The Golden Child,” a 1986 film starring Eddie Murphy. A name printed on the yard sign of a local candidate reminded her of a character from the movie.
“The Senate needs to change,” said Devin Pulliam, a 20 year old who spoke with Harris at his front door about legalizing marijuana and restoring an immigration policy that protected from deportation the young people brought to America illegally by their parents. “And she seems like a minority, and you need that.”
Harris, who is gay and black, says she doesn’t see her identity as a major factor in the election.
“It might sound bad to say it, but it’s the wrong white leadership,” she said. “It’s not the people we went to high school with, it’s not the people we work with. They have no idea what the rest of us are going through. And so we need that balance and experience. And we don’t have it.”
Harris say she thinks she’ll win Thursday. The nearly dozen voters she spoke with Sunday were uniformly supportive, though it’s rare for voters to tell a candidate to their face they support the other candidate.
But she’s emphatic that, even if it doesn’t happen all the way this election cycle, the party’s powers-that-be need to respond to the progressive movement she’s now helping lead.
“And if you don’t, there are going to be more people like myself, and Ocasio and Abrams and Gillum willing to step up and take it on, and say we are going to create change with or without you. And that’s just going to be what it is.”