“We need to win ― and doing the same old thing will not get us there,” she added. “What my campaign represents is a new fresh voice and a new approach to mobilize the voters we need to turn out to flip this seat.”
Harper, a 38-year-old Black resident of Columbus, is a founder of the progressive nonprofit Columbus Stand Up! and the director of policy and advocacy at the American Economic Liberties Project, a group that promotes tougher antitrust enforcement. She began her career clerking for a federal judge and working at a corporate law firm before a three-year stint at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington, where she ultimately became a senior adviser to the director, Richard Cordray, a fellow Ohioan.
Harper said that her work for the American Economic Liberties Project and the CFPB is a “signal for people that I am not afraid to stand up to powerful corporate interests.”
Harper is the second Democrat to jump in the race to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman. She is set to run against the more moderate, Youngstown-area Rep. Tim Ryan in a primary scheduled for May 3. The winner of that contest will face whichever Republican nominee emerges from an already-crowded primary field that includes Jane Timken, the former chair of the Ohio Republican Party; former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel; and attorney and author J.D. Vance.
Harper faces a tough contest against Ryan, 48, a 10-term incumbent who has already racked up endorsements from a host of labor unions and Democratic elected officials. He also raised more than $2.2 million from April to June ― more than any of the Republican candidates competing for the seat.
Harper mounted an unsuccessful left-wing challenge against Rep. Joyce Beatty (D) in April 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Badly outspent by Beatty and constrained by the limits of field organizing during quarantine, Harper ended up receiving less than one-third of the vote. (Beatty, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, endorsed Ryan earlier this month.)
Asked why Democrats should bet on her to win a Senate seat after her performance in the House race, Harper said, “We were able to engage voters who felt left behind and disconnected from the political process, bring them in and turn them out.”
“We also mobilized some key constituencies that we need to turn out across the state: Black voters, young people, women that were energized about having a leader willing to stand up to corporate interests,” she added.
We’re going to be putting together a coalition that hasn’t been assembled in this state in some time.
Morgan Harper, Ohio Senate candidate
Harper is clearly pitching voters on the idea that a Black woman capable of exciting the Democratic Party base, as well as voters who cast ballots infrequently, is a surer route to victory than nominating another moderate white male. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who lost to Portman in 2016, and Cordray, who lost the governor’s race to Mike DeWine in 2018, both fall into that category.
Harper hinted that she is trying to revive former President Barack Obama’s coalition, which relied on higher-than-average turnout among young voters and Black voters. (Obama won Ohio twice.)
“We’re going to be putting together a coalition that hasn’t been assembled in this state in some time,” Harper said. “Being progressive, having a track record of being willing to stand up to corporate interests … knowing what financial struggle looks like and making sure people don’t have to live through that type of vulnerability ― this is the message that the people of Ohio are looking for.”
Harper noted that, unlike Ryan, she refuses to accept contributions from corporate PACs and has been a consistent supporter of the right to abortion. (Ryan identified as a “pro-life” Democrat earlier in his career but explained in 2015 that fatherhood and speaking to women in his district prompted him to conclude that “the heavy hand of government must not make this decision for women and families.”)
“I am not a political insider,” Harper added. “I am not a career politician.”
There are not many case studies of deeply progressive Democrats winning statewide contests in independent- or Republican-leaning states, particularly if they are not incumbents or politicians with previous elected experience.
Recent House results in Ohio have been no more encouraging for the activist left. Harper supported the Cleveland-area congressional candidacy of Nina Turner, who lost a special primary election on Aug. 3 to a more moderate contender, Shontel Brown. Beatty and other senior Black lawmakers campaigned heavily for Brown.
But Harper is already poised to avoid one of the pitfalls that befell Turner, who was dogged by concerns about the steadiness of her support for President Joe Biden and her relationship to the Democratic Party.
Unlike Turner, Harper is upfront about the fact that she voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in the general election in both 2016 and 2020.
In addition, Harper’s nonprofit, Columbus Stand Up, helped register, turn out and provide rides last November to voters in parts of Columbus that are key to any Democrat’s success in Ohio.
“I’m a proud Democrat,” Harper said. “So far we’re seeing that President Biden is working to implement a lot of policies to address the issues of our time. I support and continue to support his agenda and make sure that more than anything, a goal for us is to deliver real change for our communities and the people of Ohio.”
Harper stands by the array of progressive positions that made her an activist favorite in 2020, including her support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
But Harper implied that she is still deciding which policies to emphasize in her statewide run.
“Our platform will continue to evolve as we talk to more voters across the state, but more than anything, people are looking for somebody who’s ready to fight for them, and that’s what I’m offering through my campaign.”
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