democratic primaries

In Delaware, It’s the Year of the White Male Centrist Career Politician As Carper Cruises to Big Primary Win

Tom Carper has been in statewide office since 1976. Looks like he’ll have another six years. Photo: Al Drago/Getty Images

As the 2018 primary season nears its end, the dueling narratives on the Democratic side of the barricades have been the Year of the Woman and the Year of the Young Diverse Progressive Insurgency. The Senate challenger in Delaware, Kerri Evelyn Harris, showed the potential to reinforce both. She’s a gay, biracial 38-year-old Air Force veteran and community organizer, who is personally and ideologically close to 2018’s preeminent Democratic giant-killer, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Harris, moreover, had a rationale for his primary campaign that transcended the Sandernista staples of Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage: her incumbent opponent, 71-year-old Tom Carper, is not only the epitome of the career politician (he has served continuously in a series of statewide offices dating back to 1976), but has for decades embraced the Clintonian centrist, New Democrat brand that is currently in wide disrepute in party activist circles.

Indeed, Carper has drawn particular fire from progressive activists for his support over the years for the financial services interests that play a large role in Delaware’s economy, as the Intercept acerbically noted:

[B]anks reflect a significant chunk of the economy and dominate campaign contributions [in Delaware]. Carper has faced no serious opposition from within his party over the years. It’s just been the way business is done in Delaware. But Kerri Evelyn Harris, Carper’s opponent in the September 6 Democratic primary, is trying something different, highlighting victims of predatory banking practices, which even in Delaware outnumber those who benefit. A Harris victory would signal an end to the home-cooking bank lobbyists have received from Delaware politicians since the 1980s.

Many political analysts smelled an upset in Delaware, with Carper following Joe Crowley of New York and Michael Capuano of Massachusetts as old-school pols who hung around too long and wore out their welcome with Democratic voters who wanted fresh, diverse faces in the fight against Trump. And despite the state’s reputation for bipartisanship and moderation, there was a recent precedent for strange things happening in Delaware primaries: the 2010 defeat of Rep. Mike Castle by right-wing political neophyte Christine O’Donnell in a GOP Senate contest. Castle was very much the Republican counterpart to Carper: a proud centrist, he had been in statewide office since 1980, and the two men actually pulled off a job-switching gambit in 1992 when Carper succeeded Castle as governor while Castle took over Carper’s U.S. House seat.

But those who looked at Carper as the north end of a southbound political dinosaur didn’t fully account for Delaware’s particular brand of small-state retail politics, where the incumbent had met a significant share of the electorate in years of work in the state, or in daily commutes from Delaware to DC. He also had an overwhelming financial advantage over Harris from the get-go. His sometimes quirky personality (he used to begin talks in DC by discussing the overwhelming ratio of chickens to people in Delaware) probably helped him overcome the stereotype of a long-serving ally to the very rich.

In any event, Carper beat Harris by nearly a two-to-one margin, interrupting the march of the narratives. The incumbent’s campaign went to great lengths to deny they were going to be submerged by some national wave, as CNN reported:

Carper and his supporters had been quick to underline the differences between him and Crowley, a Queens Democrat with a home in Virginia who Ocasio-Cortez cuttingly alluded to in her viral campaign ad as someone who “doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air.” They had also gently, but consistently over the last couple of days, sought to portray the Harris campaign as a front for out-of-state progressives.

“My gut tells me that they believe that Kerri is the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and they believe that I’m somehow the next Joe Crowley,” Carper said in an interview at a Labor Day picnic in Wilmington. “They think that Delaware is New York City. And I think they’re mistaken on all three counts.”

And he was right on all three counts. Carper’s now almost sure to win a fourth Senate term. Harris is certainly young enough to win future races if she wants, particularly in a place like Delaware where familiarity does not seem to breed contempt. But for the moment she will not join her friend Ocasio-Cortez as one of the faces of 2018’s big trends.

Tom Carper Defies the Narratives and Wins Big Over Harris