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Meet the latest outsider trying to upset an establishment Democrat in a blue state

Emma Newburger
In Thursday's primary against a deep-pocketed, longtime incumbent, Harris' grassroots campaign is another test case of whether the left can transfer its energy into a tangible win at the ballot box this year.

Kerri Harris is running the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez playbook in the Senate primary in Delaware. But she might not see the same results.

An anti-establishment working-class outsider, Kerri Harris has promised to re-prioritize "people over corporations" in a state that has had the same representation for nearly two decades. She has championed a Medicare-for-all-style single-payer health-care system, a $15 an hour minimum wage and has called for abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She has vowed to represent Delawareans who feel neglected.

"The working people continue to be left behind. Wealthy politicians smile in our faces and take advantage of us as families fall apart," Harris told CNBC in an interview. "The people need to step into the halls of Congress and write legislation that benefits the whole community and pulls people from the margins into the core."

In Thursday's primary against a deep-pocketed, longtime incumbent, Harris' grassroots campaign is another test case of whether the left can transfer its energy into a tangible win at the ballot box this year.

But a wave of leftist victories might not arrive in Delaware, where voters have a reputation as being moderate and could be turned off by anti-corporate rhetoric in state that gets revenue largely from big corporations, agriculture and tourism.

"There is zero interest on behalf of Harris to have a dialogue with the business community. Some of the policies she's advocating — the minimum wage, Medicare for all — these don't take into consideration the Delaware economy and the corporate community," said James DeChene, vice president of government affairs for the Delaware Chamber of Commerce.

A Harris win would echo other victories for underdogs, women and minorities elsewhere during this election season. This includes the major upset in June by Ocasio-Cortez, who trounced a longtime House incumbent, Joseph Crowley, in New York, and who recently stumped for Harris in Delaware. And on Tuesday, Democrat Ayanna Pressley upended the Massachusetts political order by unseating 10-term Rep. Michael Capuano.

While Harris' campaign encompasses the passion of the left, it also underscores the growing divisions in the Democratic Party between energized outsiders and supporters of more traditional and experienced centrist figures.

Harris, 38, an Air Force veteran and self-described queer woman of color, faces an uphill battle against Tom Carper , the 71-year-old centrist who has served in the Senate since 2001 and has not faced any serious competition. Recently endorsed by former Vice President Joe Biden, Carper has crusaded against President Donald Trump but has voted with Republicans on controversial measures. He voted to approve the Keystone Pipeline and supported legislation that exempted dozens of banks from the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law.

Carper has long championed a moderate approach, focusing on compromise with Republicans, which has irked some liberal Delaware voters and has led Harris to assail his long history of backing institutions. But DeChene said that while there is some resistance against the "Delaware way," there isn't nearly enough to oust Carper, who is well liked by Democrat and Independent voters.

"You'll see Carper out running, you'll see him at the local Home Depot. He's just around. One thing to his credit is that often long-term politicians let their district go and stop paying attention. But that's not Carper," said DeChene. "He's visible. He's here, he takes care of the district, and he doesn't let people forget him."

Staked with millions in campaign donations, Carper has sided with the financial industry in virtually every policy debate over his 40 years in politics, and boasts a tremendous fundraising advantage over Harris. According to FEC filings, Carper has raised more than $3.5 million, has spent over $3 million on his campaign and still has more than $1 million cash on hand. Harris, who has refused corporate and lobbyist money for her campaign, has raised only about $100,000, has spent just over $60,000 and has just over $50,000 in cash on hand.

"I've had to account for every single dollar and cent for my campaign, and stretch to make ends meet, just like working families do every month," Harris said. "My campaign feels the same urgency that working families do. How can elected officials feel that sense of urgency if they're dependent on corporations doing well, and not the people? My campaign is the opposite. We might not outraise them, but we'll always outwork them."

Though Harris says her opponent is "out of touch" with the people of Delaware, Carper has run an active campaign and boasts a 52 percent approval rating. And in the small state, where the registration percentages and voter demographics have remained fairly consistent, many voters look for compromise between Democrats and Republicans.

"The people of Delaware want there to be comprise and coming to the middle," DeChene said. "I don't see that attack with Harris. There's no room for compromise in her platform. She's vilified who she thinks is to blame for everything."

Harris has defended her policies, rejecting the socialist label and aiming, she said, to re-establish the integrity of the national Democratic Party by running on progressive initiatives. She pushes back on those who say such measures aren't viable in Delaware.

"To say these initiatives are not viable is to say human life is not viable. It's to say working people are not worth it, that we're expendable," Harris said.

Carper, while agreeing in a recent debate with Harris that the health-care system needs improvement, condemned her proposal to eliminate all student debt.

"I don't have a magic wand that would enable us to do that," he said in the debate. "It would cost a pretty penny."

Despite a lack of polling for the Delaware race, Harris is the decided underdog. With three Republicans running in the GOP primary — Sussex County Councilman Rob Arlett, finance attorney Gene Truono, and businessman and perennial candidate Rocky De La Fuente — a Harris primary win could allow Delaware's Senate seat to flip red.

Carper has rejected the idea that his opponent could replicate a major progressive upset, citing Cortez's surprise victory in New York as not comparable to Delaware.

Though he reiterated that it is unlikely, DeChene did speculate a potential victory for Harris in light of the other upsets across the country.

"Does this sentiment that we're not seeing — this motivated, progressive base that's not getting headlines but doing the work — will they surprise Delaware?" he mused. "For the sake of our businesses, I hope we don't see this in tomorrow's election."