CLEVELAND — Morgan Harper, a progressive activist and lawyer in Ohio who lost a Democratic House primary last year, will seek her party’s nomination for the state’s open Senate seat next year.
Harper’s campaign, which launches Wednesday, sets up a primary against Rep. Tim Ryan, a presidential candidate last year who has been in the race since April.
In an interview, Harper, 38, said she believes her message of economic justice and her life and work experiences will help carry her over Ryan, who is in his 10th term, and mobilize women, Black voters and young voters — core Democratic constituencies — in a general election.
“I am not a political insider, and I think folks are kind of sick of this inside game that doesn’t serve us, that isn’t helping workers and small-business owners,” Harper said. “What I will be representing through this campaign, through my candidacy, is a new, fresh voice.”
Harper, who worked as a lawyer and a senior adviser for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal watchdog agency, said she has “a track record of standing up to powerful corporate interests, big banks, Wall Street and also Big Tech.”
The seat is open because Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, is not seeking re-election next year. The GOP primary already has five candidates — including former state Treasurer Josh Mandel and “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance — who are positioning themselves as loyal defenders of former President Donald Trump.
Harper lost to Rep. Joyce Beatty by 36 points in the primary last year for Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses the Columbus area. Harper had the backing of Justice Democrats, the group that helped progressive newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York unseat an entrenched House Democrat in 2018. But the Ohio 3rd race was upended by the early days of Covid-19, limiting the opportunities Harper had to introduce herself to voters and build a campaign able to upset an established Democrat.
Beatty, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, endorsed Ryan’s Senate bid this month.
During his short-lived White House run, Ryan projected as a moderate, voicing skepticism about “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal. His Senate campaign raised more than $2 million in the most recent quarter — a number on par with that of the leading Republican fundraiser, businessman Bernie Moreno, although Moreno and the other GOP candidates are independently wealthy and able to self-fund their campaigns. Ryan, 48, also has landed endorsements from the Ohio AFL-CIO and other labor groups and leaders.
Since having lost the primary to Beatty last year, Harper has remained involved in progressive causes. She supported Nina Turner, a former state senator and co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, in this year’s special election primary for a Cleveland-area House seat. Turner lost to Shontel Brown, who had heavy backing from the Democratic establishment.
“I respect and endorsed Nina Turner, but that race is very different in many ways,” said Harper, who emphasized that she was eager to support President Joe Biden’s agenda — a comment more in sync with Brown’s campaign than with Turner’s.
“I’ll be talking to a lot of different folks and organizations,” Harper said when asked about the possibility of a Justice Democrats endorsement. “But ultimately the endorsements I care most about are local community leaders, people, workers and small business owners across the state of Ohio, because I think those folks are sick of this political insider game. They want to have someone that is coming from the community that will be able to speak to the issues of the community, and that’s me.”
Henry J. Gomez is a national politics reporter for NBC News.