With a new memoir set to publish Tuesday, the 2020 spotlight shifts this week to Sen. Kamala Harris as she embarks on a book tour in advance of an expected presidential announcement this month.
The book, “The Truths We Hold,” and the accompanying publicity blitz will offer some hints about the rationale for the California Democrat’s likely presidential candidacy. This second work is a more personal look at her upbringing and the roots of her activism than her first book, which drew lessons from her career as a prosecutor to explain her approach to fixing the criminal justice system.
She planted the seeds of a potential campaign message during her travels across the country last year with her constant anti-Donald Trump refrain: “We can do better than this.” In the Senate, she vigorously challenged Trump’s immigration policies, calling on Americans to stay true “to who we say we are as a country.” And Harris made a smooth debut last year in states like Iowa and South Carolina.
Already the early stages of a Kamala Harris presidential campaign are taking shape. The former California attorney general has a seasoned team of political tacticians in California, including Sean Clegg and Ace Smith, who helped elect Jerry Brown, and more recently, Gavin Newsom to the California governor’s office.
Smith, a relentless Democratic strategist, became legendary in California earlier in his career for his skill in the art of opposition research. Later, he steered Hillary Clinton to victory in North Carolina, Texas and California in the 2008 primaries.
For the day-to-day management of the campaign, Harris allies say she is most likely to entrust the role of campaign manager to Juan Rodriguez, a close confidante in his early 30s who led her bid to become the state’s first African-American US senator in 2016.
After Rodriguez helped Harris build strong coalitions across California’s varied ethnic groups in 2016, the senator told The Sacramento Bee that he represented “on so many levels the new generation of California.”
In early national polls and polls in key states — which are a better indication of name recognition than viability at this nascent stage of the race — Harris has generally landed in the single digits, somewhere near the middle of the pack, behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
After the meteoric rise of Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Harris is no longer the freshest face in the Democratic field. She is relatively untested on the national stage where she would be matched against better-known progressives like Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as well as more seasoned campaigners like Biden.
But she has demonstrated discipline and political savvy over the past two years as California’s junior senator while quietly amassing a huge list of supporters online that could serve as an early donor base to establish her position in the field.
The former prosecutor’s direct and unsparing questioning of Brett Kavanaugh during the Supreme Court hearings helped her foster a strong connection with Democratic women, many of whom said in interviews that they felt as though she was speaking for them.
And with her mixed-race heritage as the daughter of civil rights activists, Harris has unique potential to consolidate the African American vote, arguably the most powerful constituency within the Democratic primary electorate.
The primary calendar could also be favorable to a Harris candidacy – with her home state of California moving up its primary to the first Tuesday in March 2020. In conversations with more than two-dozen Democratic strategists over the past month, many noted that if Harris can scoop up delegates in California while also galvanizing African-American voters in the southeast, she could have a strong advantage at that early and critical stage of the primary season.
Robby Mook, who was Clinton’s campaign manager in 2016, noted that African-Americans could determine the winner, not only in South Carolina — where black voters made up 61% of the primary electorate in 2016 — but also in many of the March contests in states like Alabama, North Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi, where African-Americans compromise a huge share of the Democratic primary electorate.
“If a candidate is able to consolidate the African-American vote, it will be a huge advantage,” Mook said. “Southeastern states are so heavily concentrated in March, and African-Americans have such a critical share of that vote that every primary night could produce wins.”
Harris would, of course, have fierce competition for the African-American vote, including from her close Senate colleague Cory Booker. The November results showed that African-American voters were highly engaged in 2018, particularly in marquee races like that of Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida.
Clinton’s strength among African-American voters in 2016 was an often-overlooked factor in how she built an insurmountable lead of delegates over Sanders in their 2016 primary contest.
Mook noted, for example, that Clinton’s defeat by Sanders in Michigan was viewed as a huge strategic loss that prolonged the primary. But her win in Mississippi that same night yielded far more delegates.
“The media ignored Mississippi. It was our biggest win of the entire primary,” Mook said. “It was this massive delegate haul” fueled by Clinton’s support among African-Americans.
Because of California’s size and complexity — and the popularity of figures like Biden, Sanders and Warren here — the Golden State primary will be something of a wild card. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said last week that she would back Biden if he ran for the Democratic nomination.
Even as the home state senator, a primary win is far from a sure bet for Harris, particularly given that other Californians, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and US Rep. Eric Swalwell, could also be running.
“Kamala is a statewide, high-profile leader who is extraordinarily popular, with a natural base in northern California where she was district attorney and then was propelled to Attorney General,” said Dave Jacobson, a California-based Democratic strategist. “So she’s obviously a front-runner. But you’ve also got Eric Garcetti, who I think some are underestimating. He’s going to undoubtedly have appeal to the Latino community in California and is one of the only contenders with a military background.”
In an intriguing calendar twist this cycle, California will start mailing ballots to voters on February 3, the same day the caucuses are scheduled in Iowa. With her team’s experience in countless California campaigns, Harris could potentially get a jump on her competitors in banking the critical early vote in the Golden State.
In speeches like one in August to Democratic activists at Netroots Nation, Harris has argued that America is at an inflection point similar to the one her parents faced during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s when they were students at the University of California, Berkeley.
“This is a moment that is challenging us as a country to look in a mirror and ask a fundamental question, that question being: who are we?” she said at that gathering. “We are a country that is aspirational. We have not achieved all of those ideals, but we have those ideals, and it is part of our identity to fight for those ideals. So let’s not let anybody take our flag from us, OK?”
“Years from now, our children, our grandchildren, folks are going to come up to us and they’re going to ask us … where were you during that inflection moment?” she added.
In 2020, it seems increasingly likely that Harris will be answering that question from the presidential campaign trail.