Democratic voters in Delaware heading to the polls on Thursday will face a choice that has become increasingly familiar this primary season: casting a vote for a long-secure incumbent, or opting for a surging challenge from the left.
On environmental issues, that decision could be especially fraught, with both of the state’s Senate candidates offering competing green visions for the future.
Sen. Tom Carper, a former governor, has held his seat since 2001 and typically sails to victory during election season. But he’s facing an unexpectedly strong challenge from Kerri Evelyn Harris, a 38-year-old Air Force veteran who has worked as a community organizer.
Harris is the latest candidate in what has been an extraordinary year so far for progressive faces toppling entrenched establishment Democrats, with figures like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley becoming household names overnight after winning their primaries.
That wave has been largely led by young women of color, many of whom are directly naming environmental justice in their campaigns.
Harris is cut from a similar cloth. A biracial lesbian who has worked to support her family while completing her bachelor’s degree, Harris has enthusiastically backed Medicare-for-all, a $15 minimum wage, and universal pre-K. She also supports a “green new deal” — an increasingly popular progressive call for the creation of sustainable jobs.
By contrast, Carper is seen as a relatively conservative Democrat. In addition to opposing Medicare-for-all, he has been accused of fostering close ties with pharmaceutical companies and banks. But when it comes to green groups, Carper has a wide net of support, with endorsements from the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund and the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund, among others.
The incumbent senator has largely leaned on his green record as an inoculation against criticism from progressives. During his first and only debate with Harris last week, Carper’s opening monologue noted his commitment to “clean air, clean water, and [combating] climate change.”
He has also emphasized his role in targeting the Trump administration, specifically the policies of former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt.
“Last year, I led the effort to run EPA administrator Scott Pruitt out of Washington and send him back to Oklahoma,” Carper asserted.
The senator has notably warred against the Trump administration’s EPA nominees and he has opposed offshore drilling near Delaware’s waters. He has also spoken to the risks posed by climate change and its impact on Delaware, a precarious coastal state. Since 2017, he has also served as the top-ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, or EPW.
But progressives critical of Carper say that’s far from the whole story.
Despite the backing of major green groups, critics have hit Carper on what they say is a wobbly environmental record. He voted repeatedly for the Keystone XL pipeline, a move he later said was meant to curry support from Republicans for geothermal and wind energy projects. He has also supported offshore drilling in waters safely away from Delaware, supporting such efforts in Virginia, the Outer Continental Shelf, and the Gulf of Mexico.
According to the Intercept, Carper has also taken more than $200,000 from agribusiness and natural resource companies during this senate term alone. That’s a contrast with Harris, who told the publication she has sworn off all corporate donations and expressed the view that donors hold considerable sway over candidates. She also criticized Carper’s offshore drilling votes.
“He doesn’t seem to realize that we have one planet, and we’re affected by everything that happens negatively to this planet,” Harris said. “When we’re looking to keep below 2 degrees Celsius of warming — that’s all we have to do to devastate our earth — there is no room for saying ‘not in my backyard,’ but it’s OK over there.”
That assessment of Carper, however, is not shared by a number of prominent environmental groups. In their endorsement of Carper and a handful of other candidates for Senate in January, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)’s action fund lauded “their commitment to protecting our health and environment” in addition to their opposition to regulation rollbacks.
“A clean and safe environment for current and future generations is a shared American value, and we’re proud to stand with senators who will continue fighting for climate action and clean energy jobs, for clean air, and clean water – for all of us,” the organization noted in a statement.
But while Harris isn’t backed by major environmental groups, she isn’t without support. Buoyed by the progressive wing of the party, Harris has received Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement, along with support from the groups Our Revolution and the Working Families Party.
And she isn’t alone. A number of left-leaning newcomers have largely failed to secure support from major environmental groups (Ocasio-Cortez notably did not, nor did former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed), a trend Harris has continued.
That hasn’t stopped her though from remaining vocal about environmental justice. Harris’ website devotes an entire section to environmental justice, calling for all people to “have access to clean air, water, and green space” as well as the “reduction of pollution and health hazards in low-income and communities of color.” She moreover emphasizes her opposition to fracking and offshore drilling, along with investment in public transportation.
Harris, who avoids the term “progressive” in an effort to avoid alienating voters, has nonetheless joined progressive calls for a green new deal, which calls for creating jobs in the renewable energy sectors and retraining workers with a background in coal mining and other fossil fuel industries. That green economic plan is one echoed by a number of her contemporaries, including Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, both of whom have endorsed the same approach.
However, Harris has not provided details as to how she would pay for the effort, saying at one point during her debate with Carper last week that Congress can “figure it out” when it comes to payment.
Delaware voters will decide on Thursday what type of green candidate they want to send into November’s general election and, maybe, to Washington.