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There’s about to be another major Democratic Party showdown in Ohio. At the stroke of midnight on Tuesday, Morgan Harper, a lawyer and community organizer, announced she is running for the state’s U.S. Senate seat.
Harper is the most high profile Democrat in the primary against Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), who threw his hat into the ring in April and has attracted support from a long list of figures in the party’s establishment. For Harper, the campaign is an opportunity to bring a grassroots, unapologetically progressive brand of politics to the Buckeye State — and the national stage.
“It’s about showing people what community-based politics looks like and how we can have leaders that come from us, are for us, and will be able to stand up to powerful interests and deliver change for our communities,” she said in a conversation with The Uprising late Monday evening.
Harper kicked off her campaign with a video announcement. She will be holding a rally on Saturday. Harper’s first run for office came last year when she attempted to unseat Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH), the chair of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus. Beatty, who endorsed Ryan earlier this month, won that race by nearly 40 points as the pandemic scuttled Harper’s plans to send volunteers she dubbed “Morganizers” door-to-door throughout the district.
Despite the loss, seeing people mobilize for her campaign was an “incredible experience” for Harper. In the months since, Harper said she has continued community organizing with pandemic mask drives and rideshare programs to bring people to the polls and to vaccine sites. Harper is adamant this grassroots approach — and a progressive platform — is the best way for Democrats to take the Senate seat that has been held by Republican Rob Portman since 2011. Her conviction stems from the fact she sees “a lot on the line right now” including “threats to our democracy,” the climate crisis, efforts to curb abortion rights, and what Harper describes as “the aftereffects of an economic system that is really rigged against workers, small business owners, and our communities.”
“We need to be able to win the state of Ohio to get the representation in the U.S. Senate that is going to be able to deliver that change,” she explained. “I present and offer a fresh voice, perspective, and also a background of being such a leader and person.”
But Harper’s defeat to Beatty isn’t the only sign her run will be an uphill battle. Earlier this month, former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a top ally of the country’s most prominent progressive, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), lost a Cleveland area House seat to a local Democratic official in a race that was widely seen as a referendum on the direction of the party.
Portman kicked off a campaign to replace him with a surprising retirement announcement in January. On the Republican side, there are two top contenders, former state treasurer Josh Mandel and author-slash-venture capitalist J.D. Vance. They have both positioned themselves as staunch supporters of former President Donald Trump, who won the state in last year’s election. The Cook Political Report expects Ohio to stay red and has rated the Senate race “lean Republican.”
Despite all of this, Harper is confident she can win by activating “key constituencies;” the Black community, the working class, and women. Her campaign announcement video highlighted pundits describing Ohio’s Black voters as a decisive bloc in the state.
“Our focus as Democrats — and I’m a proud Democrat — needs to be about winning. … What we know is that doing the same old thing in this state is not getting it done,” Harper said. “We need a new game plan and it has to be a game plan that is rooted in the idea that we cannot shortcut it. It’s got to be door-by-door. It has to be block-by-block and reaching people where they’re at with a message that will motivate them to turn out.”
For Harper, that pitch boils down to telling voters “we are for you first, we are going to be standing up to powerful corporate interests that are rigging the economy against you.” Her platform in last year’s race included support for Medicare For All, the Green New Deal, and a plan to offer “systemic reparations” to the Black community. Harper said her policy priorities remain the same.
“I’m not rolling back any positions. I mean the issues that we’re seeing on the ground are very similar and, if anything, more urgent than when we launched the congressional campaign,” she said citing healthcare costs that “continue to skyrocket” and “costly and dangerous” effects of climate change.
Harper is also focused on taking on “big tech” and “corporate consolidation.” Her vision is a stark contrast with Ryan, who campaigned against Medicare For All and proposed alternatives to the Green New Deal when he mounted a brief and unsuccessful White House bid in the last election.
When asked about Harper’s candidacy, Izzi Levy, a spokesperson for Ryan’s campaign described Ryan as an advocate for workers and pointed to his endorsements from multiple major labor unions.
“From now through next November, Tim will be taking his relentless focus on workers to every corner of Ohio, building on the momentum he’s already earned and continuing to win the support of Ohioans in his fight to cut workers in on the deal in the U.S. Senate,” Levy said.
While Turner’s defeat in Ohio left some convinced progressive policies are a tough sell in the state, Harper thinks voters can be moved by a personal appeal.
“I think, with every issue that we’re talking about, it starts with explaining to people where I’m coming from in thinking that it’s important,” said Harper.
Harper’s roots are in Columbus, the state capital. After spending time in the foster care system, she was adopted by her mother, a public school teacher and Trinidadian immigrant. The family faced financial instability but, with scholarships, Harper was able to attend private school. She went on to Tufts, Princeton, and Stanford where she earned a law degree before going to work at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Going to elite schools while coming from a poorer neighborhood crystallized her political perspective. According to Harper, it showed her that “the economic system is rigged against most of us, but for some people it is certainly working just fine.”
“That isn’t really a reflection of the promise we make to each other and what America’s supposed to stand for,” Harper said.
With the odds stacked against her, Harper is hoping voters are swayed by her desire to deliver on the promise of a more equitable nation.
“Folks — especially in Ohio — know when you’re not being up front, and we’re over it, and we want leaders who are just going to be for us, and straightforward, and get things done,” Harper said. “That’s what I’m about.”
This story was updated with a comment from Ryan’s campaign.