Moments before Kerri Harris took the stage to debate her primary opponent in the single most important event of her insurgent campaign for the Senate, she was sewing her pants.
Specifically, she was sewing a hole in the butt of her best pair of slacks—the same pair, Harris pointed out, that she’d been wearing when we first spoke in April, two months after she launched her first-time bid for office. Harris tells me her wardrobe hasn’t expanded much since then: It still consists of five button-downs, three polos, one pair of jeans, two pairs of khakis and, as of Monday, a navy blazer she got as an early birthday present, purchased especially for her debate against Delaware Senator Tom Carper.
“I don’t have the money to buy much more,” Harris tells Broadly. “Before I went on stage, I was worried the thigh of the pants was going to wear through.”
Harris is running her progressive Senate campaign on a budget. In the last election cycle, the average Senate candidate spent $10.4 million to successfully win their seat. As of earlier this month, Carper, an incumbent who’s been in the Senate since 2001, served in Congress since 1983 to 1993, and was the state's governor from 1993 until taking his Senate position, had more than $1 million in cash on hand. Harris had just over $51,000.
At the outset of her race, money was a concern for Harris, a queer woman of color and Air Force veteran who receives most of her income through disability checks. It was the reason she hesitated at first when the group of community organizers of which she’s part suggested she challenge Carper—Harris worried about paying her bills, feeding her daughter, and borrowing money from friends and family. After some more consideration, she decided it was worth it—someone needed to take on Carper, whom Harris saw as an out-of-touch centrist Democrat representative of a larger problem in government.
And she’d be the one to do it.
“Even with the best intentions, if all you’ve done is send career politicians to Congress, you’ve forgotten about the people in the margins,” Harris told me in April. “I understand the struggle because I’m literally in it—not in the past, but right now, as I’m running this campaign.”
Harris received an influx of donations after congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her New York primary. But, for the most part, Harris’ bid to land her own upset has been a matter of spending her campaign funds strategically, particularly since she rejects corporate donations and doesn’t have the same establishment support Carper does. She couldn’t afford yard signs—a staple of most any political campaign—until last week. Her primary is on September 6.
“We really have to pay attention to the budget,” Harris says. “It’s just like every American family paying attention to every single dollar.”
Harris’ campaign is focused singularly on meeting American families' most basic needs by way of populist platforms like Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, universal pre-K and student loan forgiveness. She’s insistent that these policies can—and must—go into effect now, because Delaware families simply can’t wait any longer.
Carper says Harris’ vision for change is far-fetched.
"I don’t have a magic wand that would enable us to do that," Carper said in response to her call to eliminate student debt at Monday’s debate. "It would cost a pretty penny."
Harris says Carper’s lack of political imagination is holding Delaware back. She’s also nailed him on his historic coziness with big banks—Carper cosponsored a recent bill that eased regulations on banks—and his votes on environmental justice issues—he voted in favor of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and to confirm climate change denier Rick Perry to the head of the Department of Energy.
Carper’s office did not respond to Broadly’s interview request.
“None of my platforms are outlandish or radical,” Harris says. “The majority of Delawareans and the majority of Americans want these things. We just need a government that wants to serve the people.”
Harris is just one of dozens of progressives pushing the Democratic Party further left with their insurgent campaigns, which are built on a handful of shared platforms. Many of them are backed by the Justice Democrats, a political action committee that recruits and runs leftist candidates in hopes of remaking the Democratic Party in their image, including Harris'.
“Justice Democrats like Kerri are not just candidates, but compelling and dynamic leaders—in Kerri’s case, as a Black, gay, female, mother, veteran, and community organizer with working-class roots—who are mobilizing and expanding the electorates all over the country around an inspired vision for the future,” Nasim Thompson, the organization’s communications director, tells Broadly.
One of the biggest boons for the Justice Democrats so far has been Ocasio-Cortez’s double-digit victory over sitting Congressman Joe Crowley, who had been in the running to replace Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker. Ocasio-Cortez has created her own unofficial contingent of progressive political neophytes, stumping for candidates like former congressional contenders Cori Bush, Brent Welder, and, now, Harris. Ocasio-Cortez is heading to Delaware on Friday for two town hall forums, both of which, Harris tells me, are sold out.
"On September 6, the people of Delaware will finally have a chance to vote out entrenched corporate bureaucracy, and instead elect a champion for the working class in Kerri Evelyn Harris," Ocasio-Cortez tells Broadly. "Kerri represents a sea change—she is a progressive woman of color who refuses all corporate and lobbyist money and fights for things like student debt forgiveness, Medicare for All, a living wage starting at $15, and ending mass incarceration.
"I will be campaigning alongside Kerri just like she did for me in my primary, and I could not be more proud of her grassroots fight for people over profits in Delaware."
Harris may have Ocasio-Cortez and a slate of impressive progressive groups in her corner, but Carper has former Vice President Joe Biden, whose endorsement he won last week, national Democrats, and millions of dollars threatening to eclipse Harris' scrappy bid for office. But Harris sees her race as being about more than her versus Carper. As far as she's concerned, she has a whole movement on her side, which extends beyond Thursday night at the ballot box, and even beyond 2018.
“We have to emphasize the literal wins—we need them because they hit hard to the establishment,” Harris says of her fellow progressive challengers. “But the losses, we can’t see as losses. People who want to run in 2020 will see that you don’t have to do it the same old way; they’ll learn from our mistakes, and we’ll tell them what we could’ve done better. We’re all getting stronger.”
It's not so much that Harris thinks she’s going to lose, or wants to preemptively soften the blow. It’s that, being part of something larger than herself, she sees no way she can’t win.
“Whereas winning this race was once an uphill battle, now we’re saying we just need one big push and we win,” Harris says. “But win or lose, we’re winning this.”