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Politics & Government

Voter turnout in Democratic U.S. Senate primary could help other candidates

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Kerri Harris and Sen. Tom Carper

Democratic challenger Kerri Harris is seeking to unseat longtime Sen. Tom Carper. Her drive to turn out progressive voters may help other candidates in state races.

Harris has a uphill road ahead of her, said former Democratic State Rep. Darryl Scott. He's also Delaware Public Media political analyst.

Carper won his 2012 primary challenge with 88 percent of the vote. Democratic turnout that year - a presidential election year - was around 17 percent. This year - a midterm year - could see lower turnout.

But Scott said there’s some stark differences between Harris and Carper’s 2012 primary challenger Keith Spanarelli.

“Obviously, the excitement and buzz around her campaign is significantly greater, he said. "She’s got outside groups who are weighing in a significant way to support her campaign.”

Harris can thank New York House Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio Cortez for much of that buzz. Cortez endorsed Harris shortly after ousting 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in a primary - a victory that earned the 28-year-old the label “Democratic Giant Slayer” from New York Times.

But Scott says using 2012 numbers, Harris needs about 27,000 votes to win. That means convincing about 20,000 voters who voted for Carper last time to support her instead.

Harris’ campaign manager Drew Serres said to do that they’re focused on attracting a lot of volunteers to knock on doors. And they hope to reach more than just people who always vote, seeking out new voters or others who may feel disengaged from politics.

“We do have a big focus on people who are marginalized or people who are left out of the political process and there’s lots of those of people in Wilmington, communities of color. People like low or moderate income people,” he said.

Scott said Harris’ campaign is using tech to engage voters - like texts spelling out her positions and inviting Delawareans to campaign events.

Carper’s campaign is keeping its turnout strategy close to the vest, but appears to be sticking to traditional campaign signs, billboard and ads.

Carper said he’s focusing on all voters. He claims polling indicates he is strong in each county and equally popular among men and women. He says the numbers also show he runs well among people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. While there are more Democratic votes to be had in New Castle County than in Kent and Sussex, Carper said he’s not ignoring any area.

“We’re driving turnout everywhere," he said. "We’re not going to say we’re going to be in two counties, I mean we’re every, every representative district, every county, every election district. It’s a full court press.”

Serres argues Carper is trying to court progressive voters away from Harris by shifting to the left. He said Carper has moved towards Harris’s position on several issues.

For the first time since joining the Senate, Carper has cosponsored a bill decriminalizing marijuana. He also now supports a $15 minimum wage. But Carper's campaign said he supported a $15 minimum wage before Harris launched her campaign. But he remains more to the center on issues like health care where he wants to fix the Affordable Care Act while Harris supports Medicare for All.

Samuel Hoff, a political science professor at Delaware State University said turnout in the contested U.S. Senate primary may impact other races, bringing more voters to Democratic primaries for Attorney General, State Auditor and a number of legislative seats.

Harris’ campaign manager Drew Serres agrees, saying excitement from her positions is likely influencing some of these races. He also said Harris volunteers are also helping candidates in other races.

“Like a lot of people on Kerri’s campaign, this is their first election that they’ve ever volunteered for and they’re like ‘Oh I want to find out what’s also going on in my local race’ so they do that as well,” he said.

Hoff said the impact could be felt after primary race, which could actually help state Republicans.

“When we deal with national issues, we obviously start with issues relating to the economy and to taxes and to other issues and in that sense I think things are looking pretty positive for the White House and the administration,” he said.

The primary election is this Thursday - and the winner of the Carper Harris race will face the winner of Republican primary for Senate between Rob Arlett and Gene Turono.

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