COLUMBUS, Ohio — Just before the rain was set to start on a cloudy Thursday, Morgan Harper got to do something she had been waiting for since launching her U.S. Senate campaign in August.
“Hi, I’m Morgan. I’m running for U.S. Senate. Have you heard about it?” she said after knocking on the home of a door in the Columbus suburbs.
Harper says she gets an adrenaline rush when she door knocks to talk politics.
The activist and progressive attorney calls it ‘Morganizing.’
“Do I have your vote?” she asked a retired firefighter who answered.
“Of course you do,” he told her.
A core theme of the 38-year-old Democrat’s campaign is the need for fresh leadership. It’s a direct jab at her main primary opponent, Northeast Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who’s been in office since 2003.
“20 years of representation has gotten us pretty much nothing,” Harper told a handful of supporters who showed up at Nelson Park for a canvassing event.
Harper faces a tough battle against Ryan, who is out-raising her by millions of dollars and out-polling her by double digits.
It’s similar to her first campaign for office in 2020, when she challenged incumbent Democratic Rep. Joyce Beatty in her Columbus district. Harper lost by almost 40 points — she blames the COVID-19 lockdowns as part of the reason.
Spectrum News asked Harper why voters should trust that she could win a statewide race when she didn’t perform well in the 3rd Congressional District, which is heavily Democratic.
“Well, our last campaign, it was a really great expression of what’s possible when you connect with a lot of different types of people,” Harper said in an interview at her campaign headquarters.
It didn’t translate to votes in that race, but she hopes it will this time around.
Harper spends her days holding roundtables and listening sessions with groups often overlooked.
In Westerville, she met with the leaders of the New American Resource Center, which provides mental health services to immigrants and refugees.
“This issue is killing us silently,” one attendee told her.
Harper connects the concerns she hears to her support of progressive policies, including the Green New Deal and universal health care.
“Everyone is saying very consistent things, about how we’re doing things isn’t really working for enough of us,” she said. “And we need more resources at the community level and really supporting the grassroots.”
That same day, Harper hosted a roundtable at the Lincoln Cafe in Columbus to discuss access to housing.
“I’m on disability, but it’s not enough for rent and bills,” one person at the event said.
An older woman explained her current living situation.
“The ceilings [are] falling down. The refrigerator doesn’t work,” she said.
Harper told them government should guarantee opportunity for all. She points to her work as a senior adviser for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during former President Barack Obama’s administration.
“There are answers for all of this,” Harper told the group. “This is not complicated, right? We have the resources. So let’s just make sure that everybody has housing.”
As a progressive who swings far to the left, Harper faces a monumental challenge in a state former President Donald Trump won twice by eight points.
The small groups she met with last week did like what she had to say, and the fact that she showed up.
“She’s trying to stand up for people who can’t really stand up for themselves,” said Damon Blanchard, a Columbus resident who attended the housing roundtable.
After the listening session at the New American Resource Center, the CEO of the organization said he appreciated Harper lending her time.
“She is stepping in and learning and asking me questions,” Liban Bule told Spectrum News.
Dejuan Sharp, a veteran who has struggled to find affordable housing, said, “If you put parties aside and just vote for the best person that’s going to help us, I think she’ll win.”
But high profile Democrats across the state are coalescing behind Ryan, who’s pushing a more moderate platform focused on the economy.
Harper criticizes him for accepting corporate PAC money and says he’s just the status quo.
“People don’t want just another empty suit politician,” Harper said. “They want real leadership, and that’s what I’m offering to the people of Ohio.”
She’s wanted to debate him for months, but Ryan has so far pushed it off.
So Harper has instead faced off with Republican frontrunner Josh Mandel, a former state treasurer who’s pursuing his third Senate bid.
The two met while on opposing ends of an abortion protest in Mason last fall and have since debated twice.
Critics say the highly charged events are a farce, but Harper argues they are necessary.
“I want the people of Ohio to know exactly who this person is, what the threat is, what the stakes are in this election, so that they will be motivated to participate,” Harper told Spectrum News. “And that is an exercise that we need to happen as early and as often as possible.”
It’s part of her broader goal to motivate voters to give her a shot.
“I’m 38 years old and I’m old enough to be in the United States Senate,” she joked with one woman while knocking on doors. “These are all questions I get a lot.”