The Slatest

The Progressive Challenger in Delaware Couldn’t Topple Tom Carper

Sen. Tom Carper speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol.
Sen. Tom Carper is on track to win a fourth-term this fall.
Al Drago/Getty Images

Democratic Sen. Tom Carper survived a rare primary challenge in Delaware on Thursday, in the process denying progressives another signature victory in a year in which they’d already knocked out two 10-term congressmen and claimed several nominations for governor.

The Associated Press called the race with about two-thirds of the vote counted and the three-term incumbent up about 28 points, 64 percent to 36 percent, on challenger Kerri Evelyn Harris, an Air Force veteran and community activist making her first run for elected office. Harris entered the race as an underdog against Carper, who’s represented Delaware for a combined 40-odd years as a senator, governor, congressman, and state treasurer. But following Ayanna Pressley’s stunning upset of Rep. Mike Capuano this week, anything was starting to seem possible for the left.

Like Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez before her, the 38-year-old Harris paired a progressive policy agenda with a lived-experience argument to try to unseat an older white man who had been a fixture in Democratic politics for decades. But Harris was trying to make history—as the state’s first female senator, first senator of color, and first openly LGBTQ senator—in a place that was far whiter and more moderate than either of the deep-blue, majority-minority districts where Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez won by double-digits. Ultimately, Delaware Democrats went for the familiar face, keeping the 71-year-old Carper on track for a fourth term.

Carper’s record as a centrist would have opened him up to a challenge from the left even if the question of identity and representation never came up. But his deep ties to the state—maintained with a Joe Biden–like reliance on regular Amtrak commutes home—helped him avoid a competitive Senate primary until this year. The progressive case against him: He voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, opposes Medicare for All, has backed offshore drilling, and has a long history siding with his home state’s banking industry. Harris, meanwhile, called for Medicare for All, the abolishment of the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency, legalizing marijuana, ending mass incarceration, and eliminating all student debt.

In the end, Carper won by a sizeable margin. But viewing the results only through a win-loss binary misses the reality that Harris mounted a credible challenge despite being an underfunded first-time candidate up against a man who’s been winning statewide races since 1976. Taking down an establishment-backed candidate, like Andrew Gillum did in Florida or Kara Eastman did in Nebraska, is difficult, but not nearly as difficult as taking down an incumbent. As remarkable as Pressley’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s victories were, the former had the time she spent on the Boston City Council going for her in Massachusetts, while the latter had the good fortune of facing an incumbent in New York who largely ignored her until it was too late.

The Democratic establishment has gotten their preferred candidate far more often than they haven’t this year, and that was the case again on Thursday. That Harris wasn’t able to claim a higher share of the vote confirms, once again, that there are limits to where the progressive formula for victory can work now. But the fact Harris made Carper sweat, however briefly, still tells us plenty about where the Democratic Party is today—and where it might head in the future.