Originally published in The Intercept on October 9, 2019.
MORGAN HARPER, the 36-year-old progressive running for Congress in Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District raised a remarkable $323,000 during the first quarter of her campaign, setting her up for a potent primary challenge to 69-year-old Rep. Joyce Beatty, a four-term incumbent.
Harper, a first-time candidate, is running on the idea that Congress needs a new generation of leaders and is coming at Beatty from the left. Her platform consists of universal child care, tuition-free public college, Medicare for All, reparations, affordable housing, and a Green New Deal. In July, she told The Intercept that she sees freshman lawmakers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib as role models. “I most closely identify with the women who are pushing for the bold policies that we’re going to need to make sure people are OK, and we build a United States that works for everyone,” she said.
Beatty, a longtime official with Ohio State University, entered politics in 1999, taking over her husband’s seat in the Ohio state House, where he had served the previous two decades. There she became Democratic leader and the first woman to hold that position in the chamber’s history. She was then elected to Congress in 2012, serving on the powerful House Financial Services Committee, often aligning herself with financial interests.
Harper’s first-quarter haul came from approximately 2,670 individual donors from all 50 states, though the majority came from Ohio, according to figures provided by her campaign. Residents of 90 percent of the ZIP codes represented in the Ohio district, which includes most of Columbus, were among the donors, said Harper. The average donation to the campaign was $85, with 90 percent of donations standing at $100 or less.
Like other progressive challengers, Harper has sworn off money from corporate political action committees, lobbyists, and the fossil fuel industry. Beyond that, Harper has also said she will not accept donations from payday lenders and firearms manufacturers. But Harper’s time spent working at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington, D.C., as well as her degrees from Tufts, Stanford, and Princeton, also give her a network to tap for bigger contributions than many challengers are able to muster.
Harper’s campaign has raised the fourth-largest amount of money among any first-time congressional primary challenger in the initial quarter of their campaign, according to data provided by Data for Progress. Her haul trails Tim Canova, who raised roughly $537,000 in the first quarter of his ultimately unsuccessful 2016 bid; Suraj Patel, who raised more than $525,000 his first quarter against New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney in 2018; and Ayanna Pressley, who raised $364,000 against Michael Capuano that same cycle. (Patel narrowly lost his 2018 primary bid, and he recently announced that he will be launching a second challenge. Pressley won her race and now represents Massachusetts’ 7th District.)
Harper’s campaign fundraising prowess was made possible by a strong ground operation, she told The Intercept. “We have at this point a solid group of folks who are consistently canvassing every week,” she said. “People stop in, we’re out speaking at different events and supporting different progressive movements that are underway. We are feeling very optimistic. The biggest challenge is just overcoming the privileges that come with incumbency. But once we get to people, they’re really excited.”
Three recent incidents put Harper’s campaign on the national map, giving her a boost among out-of-state donors, Harper said: an endorsement in early August from Justice Democrats, an appearance on the Young Turks, and “the Jonathan Weisman thing” — referring to a Twitter controversy initiated by then-New York Times Deputy Washington Editor Jonathan Weisman. On August 7, he noted that Justice Democrats had endorsed a challenger to Beatty, “an African-American Democrat.”
Harper then quote-tweeted Weisman, saying, “I am also black.”
Harper’s tweet went viral, elevated in part by prominent figures like Roxane Gay, who tweeted, “Any time you think you’re unqualified for a job remember that this guy, telling a black woman she isn’t black because he looked at a picture and can’t see, has one of the most prestigious jobs in America.”
The episode escalated when Weisman emailed Gay, her assistant, and her book publisher to demand Gay apologize for her tweets, arguing that she had “willfully or mistakenly” misconstrued his remarks.
The drama resulted in Weisman getting demoted, and he hasn’t tweeted since that day.
“All those things just amplified awareness nationally and really increased the number of small donors,” Harper told The Intercept.
Harper’s fundraising news comes on the heels of a successful quarter for Jessica Cisneros, a progressive challenger running against Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas’s 28th District. In the last quarter, Cisnersos raised $310,000 — a significant boost, likely aided in part by Sen. Elizabeth Warren throwing her weight behind the candidate in September. Marie Newman, a progressive running against incumbent Democrat Dan Lipinski in Ilinois’s 3rd Congressional District likewise saw a successful quarter. Campaign manager Ben Hardin told The Intercept that Newman raised $350,000 in the most recent fundraising period. Newman, who came close to defeating Lipinski in a primary challenge last year, has been endorsed by Warren and Ocasio-Cortez.
Both Cisneros and Newman have also sworn off corporate PAC and lobbyist money.
“These are pretty astounding numbers,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress. “The fact that we are having this number of primary challengers hitting these numbers — and I suspect there will be more to come — is telling and really a sign that the idea that primary challengers are somehow abnormal or somehow malignant is wrong.”
“If I were an incumbent, I would be scared shitless,” McElwee continued. “Right now, if you were a member of Congress who thought, ‘Oh, only Capuano or Crowley or white guys in majority POC districts need to be worried,’ what candidates like Morgan Harper and Jessica Cisneros are saying is that any Democratic representing a safe Democratic district should be put on watch.”