Kamala Harris, speaking to activists here disappointed that Democrats have been unable to advance key immigration and gun control measures, urged them Saturday to focus their efforts on the midterm elections while brushing off questions about her own future ambitions.
Embracing her “joyful warrior” title, she said she decided: “We’ve got to just go into 2018 and take back the flag.”
Harris’s visit to Nevada was more evidence that the invisible primary for 2020 is well underway. Because of the size and potential depth of the Democratic field, many party strategists believe the potential contenders must make a decision about whether they are running between mid-November and the New Year.
But during her trip, the California senator once again brushed off questions about her White House ambitions.
“Don’t answer that honey,” Harris said with a laugh when an attendee directed a question to her husband, asking whether he would support her if she decides to run for president in 2020. “Don’t say anything.”
Through her crisp, hearing room interrogations of leading figures in the Trump administration, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the former prosecutor has earned almost folk hero status among the Democratic primary electorate.
And Harris has positioned herself as a leading voice on issues important to the liberal left, including immigration, gun control and abortion.
The disappointment among activists here that Congress did not find a solution by the March deadline to help DACA recipients, the young immigrants brought to the United States as children, was palpable. But some gave Harris credit for being out front on that issue.
In interviews here, attendees frequently cited Harris’s sparring matches with Sessions and others as proof of the kind of toughness she might exhibit if matched with President Trump when he runs for re-election in 2020.
“She’s not afraid; she’s had the courage to stand up where she needs to stand up,” said North Las Vegas activist Yesenia Moya Garay, who is 28. “Most of the (Senate) committees that she’s been on, she has been able to speak her mind. She’s gone up against Jeff Sessions continuously.”
Garay, who opened the question-answer session with Harris by pressing her on what she would do next to help the so-called “Dreamers” said Harris has been “a great ally.”
“You can’t really ask for more,” said Garay, who said Harris is at the top of her list within the field of potential Democratic presidential candidates. “It’s about consistency.”
Harris isn’t the only Democrat spending time in early presidential primary states. Jason Kander, the former Missouri secretary of state, was the first to headline the Nevada Democratic Party’s “Local Brews + National Views” lecture series last year. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley will be the next featured guest. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently attended Democratic Party gatherings in South Carolina, another early contest state.
Harris backers believe her path to the White House could begin in early caucus states like this one. Not only does she hail from neighboring California; she is also well known in the state after campaigning extensively in 2016 for fellow senator Catherine Cortez Masto, who joined her at the Democratic Party event at Henderson’s Loveland Brewery Saturday.
If she were to do well in the caucus states, Harris allies believe she would be uniquely positioned to capitalize on strong support from black voters who dominate South Carolina’s Democratic primary, and then roll on through the other southern states that are front loaded early in the 2020 cycle.
California’s decision to move up its 2020 primary to the beginning of March could enhance her chances, given her enormous popularity in her home state.
But with control of the US House and Senate at stake in this pivotal swing state — home to some of this year’s most competitive races — Harris urged the group of Nevada activists to stay focused on winning over voters who are still feeling economic anxiety and are weary of the chaos surrounding the Trump White House.
In her stump speech, she repeatedly says she rejects the notion that America is divided.
“Right now in our country there are a lot of people who are distrustful of their government, its institutions, and its leaders,” she said. “This is a moment in time when we must speak truth… Racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism are real in this country. Let’s speak that truth so we can confront and deal with it.”
The California senator cited her work on criminal justice and cash bail reform with conservative Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul as evidence that Americans “have so much more in common than what separates us.”
“As we go into this 2018 cycle. I say we go in fighting with our chins up and our shoulders back, knowing that this is about fighting for the best of who we are,” Harris said. “This is a fight that is motivated by love of country.”
A number of Democratic activists here in Nevada said they closely followed Harris’s recent trip to Selma, Alabama, for the 53rd anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march.
Harris’s speech in Selma wowed Nalini Velayudhan and DeAnne Wolfgram, event attendees who helped form a local women’s group, “W.E. Women Empowered,” after Trump won the presidential election in 2016.
Velayudhan, 43, said she is encouraged by the surge in enthusiasm among Democrats, but concerned that same energy may splinter the party’s strength in key House races this fall.
“I think it’s great to see the energy out there, but almost like you wish you could just distill it down to good candidates that we should back, because it’s almost like we are spreading ourselves too thin,” Velayudhan said. “Are we going to end up too fragmented?”
Velayudhan, Wolfgram and two other friends from their “Women Empowered” group who joined them at the Harris event said they were also worried that Democrats have not yet figured out how to correct the errors of the 2016 presidential election. Chief among those: finding a message that can activate millennials, particularly minorities who did not turn out in 2016, while also addressing the anxieties of more conservative white, working-class voters.
They said it was not yet clear which 2020 candidate could bridge that divide. Velayudhan noted the importance of finding a candidate like Harris who could connect with the next generation and get them out to vote.
“I think (Harris) would be phenomenal, but she’s not going to appeal to the angry white man vote,” said Wolfgram, 47. “She’s black, she’s a woman, and she’s smart. I don’t mean to label, but the vote that was a major vote for Trump was that.”
But they all agreed that Harris would likely turn out more millenials. And Amy Sandquist, 53, added that Trump fatigue would work in Harris’s favor: “I think a lot of people would be ready for a little more grace.”