Despite tough road, challenger optimistic in Del.’s Democratic Senate primary

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Kerri Evelyn Harris will face U.S. Sen. Tom Carper in a pair of debates before the primary vote on Sept. 6. (Harris campaign photo)

Kerri Evelyn Harris will face U.S. Sen. Tom Carper in a pair of debates before the primary vote on Sept. 6. (Harris campaign photo)

If money equaled votes, Kerri Evelyn Harris would have no shot at unseating three-term U.S. Sen. Tom Carper in the Sept. 6 Delaware primary.

Between January 2017 and June of this year, Carper has collected more than $2.1 million in donations. His Democratic challenger, a former U.S. Air Force loadmaster, raised less than $53,000 over that time.

As a result of that fundraising difference, the Harris campaign is depending heavily on volunteers.

“We only have five paid staff. I’m pushing a $15 minimum wage, but we can’t pay $15 minimum wage,” Harris said. “We’re really just paying our staff so they can eat.”

And while it’s a major hurdle, Harris is proud of her low-budget campaign. Eighty-seven percent of her donations come from Delaware voters “who really believe in it,” she said.

“Our average donation is between $25 and $35 depending on the week,” Harris said during an interview at her bare-bones campaign headquarters in Wilmington.

By comparison, a look at Carper’s campaign finance report shows myriad corporate PACs from Walmart, Ford, and Microsoft to Lockheed Martin, AT&T, and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

While not directly questioning Carper’s integrity, Harris said the corporate donations give a negative impression.

“The perception alone weakens our democracy. If any person feels that their vote isn’t as valuable to you as the money that you’re getting from some corporation, then you’ve already lost the battle for the people,” Harris said. “We have seen over and over again that corporations get to win, and we’re told ‘if they do well, then you’ll do well,’ but we’re not feeling that, and we want it to be reversed.

“As we do well — the people, corporations will do well.”

In addition to her support for a $15 minimum wage, Harris supports Medicare for all and universal pre-K.

“We have to meet the basic needs of our Delawareans,” she said. “And, until we do, they’re not going to be able to fully participate in our democracy like we keep saying we want them to.”

Harris actively campaigned in New York for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who pulled off a surprising win over incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary in June. Harris said that upset has emboldened her campaign.

“We were already picking up momentum, but when she won, not only did Delaware realize that you can take on the establishment and win … they realized that now is the time.”

Recent Delaware history is evidence that the establishment can be defeated by a candidate with little or no experience running a campaign. Just ask former Delaware Congressman Mike Castle who, like Carper, served two terms as governor and then went on to nine terms in Congress.

But Castle suffered a shocking upset in the 2010 Republican primary for U.S. Senate at the hands of tea party favorite Christine O’Donnell. And though Harris and O’Donnell couldn’t be more dissimilar in beliefs and background, Harris hopes to repeat O’Donnell’s feat of knocking out one of Delaware’s longest-serving elected officials.

She embraces the David versus Goliath metaphor, with a twist.

“More so than just myself, I see the people as the David to the Goliath,” Harris said. “I think it’s important for people to understand that through me they actually have a chance to have their voice be heard, because I am their voice … You need to know that there is someone standing there for you and with you — and currently we can’t say that. And, if you look at voting records, you can’t say that.”

In 2016, Lisa Blunt Rochester made Delaware history in becoming the first woman and the first African-American to be elected to Congress from the First State. If elected, Harris would also make history as the first gay Delawarean elected to federal office. But that historic potential is not a focus of her campaign effort.

“I served under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and I had determined when I was no longer forced to live that way, that I would always just be myself in all capacities and know that I deserve to live as myself,” Harris said. “To be honest, when I decided to run, I didn’t really put it together how much history would be made. I really just tried to live my life as I am and know that I belong there.”

Harris will face Carper in a pair of debates before the primary vote on Sept. 6. The winner will face the winner of the Republican primary pitting Sussex County Councilman Rob Arlett against Gene Truono, former chief compliance officer at PayPal.

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