ILMINGTON, Del. — Three miles from the sprawling U.S. campus of the pharmaceutical giant Astrazeneca, Kerri Evelyn Harris was campaigning to unseat the man who put it there.
Some 200 people had crammed into folding chairs, stood along walls, and spilled into hallways of a community center for a look at the candidate mounting a long-shot bid to unseat Sen. Tom Carper, an 18-year-incumbent, in the state’s Democratic Senate primary this Thursday.
Harris’s go-to campaign topics include drug pricing, special interests, the opioid crisis — and what she views as the throughline joining all three: the pharmaceutical industry.
The race, broadly, is emblematic of the Democratic Party’s struggle to become more inclusive — Harris is a queer biracial woman in her 30s, Carper a straight white man in his 70s. But Harris, an Air Force veteran and community organizer, is among a select few candidates engaged in a different fight for the party’s identity: the desire to rid it of pharmaceutical industry influence.
Her campaign literature stresses, in bold font, that Carper accepts campaign contributions from “Big Pharma.” She has criticized the senator for voting against lowering drug costs for seniors by closing a Medicare coverage gap. Even in her stump speech, Harris advocates for making prescription medicines more affordable by allowing drug importation from Canada.
“You can see that pharmaceutical companies take precedence over the rest of us when it comes to bringing in cheaper drugs from Canada even though we know they’ve been tested to the same degree,” Harris said to applause on Friday.
A Kerri Evelyn Harris campaign ad criticizes sitting lawmakers for failing to rein in prescription drug prices.
Harris’s campaign, too, has pointed to Carper as a prime example of corporate excess: There are his votes against re-importation and closing Medicare’s so-called “donut hole,” as well as his opposition to stripping licensing exclusivity from drugmakers found to have made misleading claims, and another vote against a provision to strengthen protections against misleading drug ads.
Already, Harris has moved Carper on at least one issue: in a debate last week, he pledged support for importing drugs from Canada. Carper, however, has long expressed concerns about drug importation and is the co-author of a recent Senate report highlighting the role Chinese traffickers have played in bringing illicit fentanyl to the U.S.
In her state, Harris must be careful to thread a needle. Even after Astrazeneca laid off 1,200 Delaware workers in 2013, the biopharmaceutical industry is estimated to be responsible for well over 10,000 jobs here. Carper still lists bringing the company’s U.S. base to Delaware among his proudest accomplishments from his time as Delaware governor.
Carper “has supported allowing the federal government to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies to lower drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries and has voted to allow drug importation when it can be verified that those drugs are safe for American patients,” a spokeswoman for his campaign told STAT. “He is also leading the charge in Congress to keep deadly opioids coming into our country from China off of our streets.”
He has also supported legislation that would force drug companies to justify price increases, helped to investigate Mylan’s controversial EpiPen price hikes, and supported efforts by Delaware’s attorney general to hold drug companies accountable for their role in the opioid crisis.
For Harris, it isn’t enough.
“It is wonderful to create an atmosphere where businesses want to come and grow, but we have to make sure the people of Delaware come first,” Harris told reporters earlier Friday. “Every time we’ve brought business here, whether it’s banking or pharmaceuticals, we see time and time again that the people of Delaware lose.”
As she barnstormed Delaware this weekend, Harris had backup: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic Socialist candidate who drew national headlines by ousting Joe Crowley, a powerful New York congressman who left-wing media had also derided as too friendly to pharma, in a primary.
And as each candidate laments a culture of “corporate Democrats,” the drug industry has become a repeated theme.
“When it comes to health care and pharmaceuticals … it has always operated within a zero-sum framework,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “The expansion of corporate interests has come at the cost of everyday Americans, particularly the cost they front at the pharmacy.”
And, speaking to reporters after a Friday evening rally, Harris and Ocasio-Cortez each urged Carper and all Democratic candidates to return donations from corporate political action committees and lobbyists, with a particular eye on drug companies seen as having furthered the opioid crisis.
“So long as big pharma lobbies and corporate insurance lobbyists have a huge, outsize role in the policymaking in DC, we are not going to get a health-care system that maximizes and prioritizes working-class Americans,” said Ocasio-Cortez.
Both candidates have pledged not to take money from corporate political committees.
“Even if none of their votes have been affected by the money they receive, the perception alone weakens our democracy,” Harris said.
An ad released this month by the Carper campaign highlights his support for the Affordable Care Act.
Carper, in his past term as senator, has accepted thousands from drug lobbying organizations like PhRMA and BIO, as well as Astrazeneca. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the pharmaceutical and health products industry has contributed over $500,000 to his campaigns over the course of his political career.
Harris has also zeroed in on contributions Carper has accepted from the drug distributor AmerisourceBergen and the generic drugmaker Teva, citing lawsuits alleging each played a role in furthering the opioid crisis by aggressively recklessly shipping opioids and marketing the drugs misleadingly, respectively. She has also lobbied in support of a bill introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that would authorize $100 billion in spending over the coming decade to combat the addiction crisis.
“Definitely, when it comes to the opioid crisis, you can’t in one breath say that you care and then not sign off on bills that would actually help save lives,” Harris said.
For all Harris’s rabble-rousing, however, it’s not yet clear whether the focus on anti-pharmaceutical industry sentiment within the party’s left wing will produce results. Harris is still viewed as unlikely to win, especially with the state’s two largest labor unions and former vice president Joe Biden, himself a longtime Delaware senator, backing Carper.
As of mid-August, Carper had raised roughly $3.5 million for his re-election bid. Harris had raised barely $100,000. The victor in Delaware’s Democratic primary is likely to prevail in November, with limited polling showing Harris and Carper leading potential Republican nominees.
Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, talked and tweeted frequently about her unwillingness to accept campaign contributions from pharmaceutical lobbyists en route to her primary win, faulting the industry for Americans’ inability to afford prescription drugs.
But her victory remains an exception. Elsewhere, Democrats known for accepting drug company contributions and who are viewed as sympathetic to the industry have gone largely unchallenged.
So hard is it to dislodge some Democrats from the industry’s grasp that for at least one advocacy group, success is measured not in whether a candidate is defeated but in whether it’s possible to simply raise awareness of their campaign donors and voting records.
The outside group Patients for Affordable Drugs last month announced its political arm would oppose the re-election of Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat who has not faced a competitive challenger since she was elected to represent her Northern California district in 1992.
Eshoo receives more money from the pharmaceutical industry than any other House lawmaker. In opposing her, Patients for Affordable Drugs did not endorse her Republican challenger, instead arguing simply that voters should know her record.
Harris, however, does not see herself as a sacrificial lamb.
“Just to be clear, I didn’t come here to lose,” she reminded the Wilmington crowd at one point, to roars.
With her attacks on the pharmaceutical industry, Harris has clearly tapped into a preoccupation many of her supporters share. But she also knows when to climb her soapbox to lament corporate America’s political influence — and when to avoid the debate.
Midway through an aside about the social justice implications of legalizing marijuana, and lawmakers’ reticence to do so, a supporter interrupted her to yell: “They’re taking money from Big Pharma, that’s why!”
Harris stopped and smiled. This time, she let it go.