Vice President Kamala Harris has seized onto abortion rights as an issue all her own, cementing herself as the administration’s lead messenger on an area it hopes will resonate with voters at the ballot box in November – and beyond.
Harris has spent the last several weeks traveling the country to meet with activists and state lawmakers about abortion rights in deep red and swing states and following the Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion. Even though a White House official said abortion rights are not a part of her official portfolio, the issue has given Harris some momentum after a first year in which the vice president found herself fighting off negative headlines, internal frustration and tough assignments that became political anchors.
With the midterm elections less than 100 days away, Indiana state Sen. Jean Breaux, a Democrat, told CNN Sunday she could see abortion rights as a chance for Harris to show off her leadership – both now and in the future.
“I thought that there was something behind it for her, as well. That she was trying to position herself as a leader on this issue so that she could show America that she has the potential to lead and can articulate an issue that is resonating with voters all across the country,” she said after attending a roundtable event with the vice president last week.
Breaux told CNN that still, she believed Harris is “sincerely concerned about abortion and the loss of abortion rights for women across this country” and White House officials and others downplay the idea Harris is making a political play by focusing on abortion. They argue she is only responding to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which established abortion as a constitutional right.
“This is not about the next election. This is about an assault on women’s reproductive rights. This is about an extreme Republican Party that is willing to dismantle freedoms and erode rights. I don’t think anybody’s thinking of it in a political sense,” said Cedric Richmond, who left his position at the White House to be a senior advisor for the Democratic National Committee.
While there is no action President Joe Biden can take to restore the nationwide right to an abortion, Democrats and advocates have been pressuring the White House to do more on abortion rights. The White House has dismissed several progressive ideas to protect abortion access, including allowing abortion providers to work from federal property in states where the procedure is banned.
Abortion rights have long been a prominent issue for Harris in her campaigns. When she ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019, she vowed, if elected, to require states with a history of restricting abortion rights to obtain federal approval before any new abortion law could take effect. “We cannot tolerate a perspective that is about going backward and not understanding women have agency,” Harris said at the time.
She’s bringing that same intensity to her discussions with state lawmakers about how to respond to the Dobbs decision, in which the conservatives on the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Aides say the vice president plans to be more visible on any topic that is front and center for the Democratic Party as November grows near. In particular, Harris will continue to elevate abortion rights, ramping up her travel to speak to the “urgency of the moment,” three months ahead of the midterms, aides say.
“As a former local official, the vice president is keenly aware of the critical role these leaders play, especially now when it comes to protecting access to reproductive care,” Kirsten Allen, Harris’ press secretary, told CNN. “The vice president will continue to travel the country and meet with leaders and people on the ground to highlight what’s at stake and build coalitions to protect a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions, free from government interference.”
Harris finds her voice on the road
The vice president has been traveling from state-to-state this summer, sometimes making several trips per week since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade at the end of June. Harris has focused on deeply red and purple states like Florida, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania where state lawmakers have already put in place, or are discussing, newrestrictive measure to curtail or simply eliminate women’s access to an abortion.
Harris will increase that already-ramped-up political travel over the next few months, with a significant number of trips focused on raising money for the DNC and Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund, according to a DNC official.
“She has been intentional about going to places and calling out mainly Republican governors in a way that we really haven’t done up until now,” one aide said.
Harris allies, who had previously criticized the administration’s use of the vice president, now herald President Joe Biden for positioning her in an effective way on an issue where she has “deep credibility.”
“This is just an area where she has a more defined profile,” the White House official said, who noted her focused intensified after Harris gave a forceful pro-abortion speech at Emily’s List hours after the draft opinion leaked. “It was a confluence of events, ability and opportunity all in one.”
The official said Harris then tasked her office with providing her data about wider implications of the Supreme Court’s decision, such as the effects if could have in vitro fertilization (IVF), access to birth control and same-sex marriage.
Still, these latest appearances are giving hope to supporters who may have questioned what happened to the fierce former prosecutor who made headlines grilling Republicans during high-profile Senate hearings.
“If you think about her as a rising star in the party, that’s what people saw,” one person allied with Harris told CNN. “They’re like, ‘Yes, she’s a fighter for us.’ And so, her voice out there on this issue is helping both to literally fight the fight, but then also to mobilize voters and remind voters what she is uniquely adept at.”
Less than 100 days
The roundtables with state legislators have been a winning model for the vice president, allies say, as it props up Harris’ ability to convene and organize, while also shining a light on restrictive policy proposals across the country.
They’ve also provided Harris with an avenue to show the skills honed over years as a prosecutor and attorney general in California, providing a more emphatic voice on abortion rights than the President, who has a complicated history on the issue.
“I think on issues like this, it’s clear why they are a good pair,” one source close to Harris told CNN.
“In this moment in crisis her unique history, credibility, and expertise is just invaluable both to the administration as well as the country,” said Karen Finney, vice chair of NARAL and Democratic strategist
The vice president has tasked staff, aides say, with putting more of a focus on engaging younger voters as November grow closer. And a source with a Democratic-aligned super PAC told CNN that their focus groups show that Harris is still a popular figure with Black voters, despite the general dip in approval rating for the President.
“So that’s going to be an important angle down the road,” the source said, suggesting Harris be deployed to help Democrats in tight House races, such as Georgia’s Sanford Bishop or Ohio’s Amelia Sykes, who is vying for an open seat.
The vice president will start campaigning with a relatively new team around her, after a series of staffers departed her office. A source familiar with office relations says that quicker decision-making has streamlined coordination with the West Wing and the vice president’s office during the administration’s second year. One White House official credited Anita Dunn, who returned to the White House amid staffing changes in the West Wing, as responsible for some of the positive change.
That’s led to Harris becoming more of a public face than she was during her first year, doing more media interviews in 2022 than in 2021 and taken far more trips to tout the Biden agenda.
Harris has held more than two dozen roundtables on abortion rights since a draft opinion previewing the overturning of Roe v. Wade was published in Politico in May.
Florida Rep. Fentrice Driskell, who has attended two roundtables with Harris in both Washington and Orlando and rode on Air Force 2, said, “I really have the genuine sense that she is wanting to hear what we are experiencing on the ground.”
In some ways, Harris has been trying to create a national message for Democrats – repeating at nearly every roundtable how “one does not have to abandon your faith or your beliefs to agree that the government should not be making this decision” for women.
But advocates say Harris could be doing more, as they pressure the White House to be more aggressive on abortion rights legislation and meet the moment.
“I’m really glad that the vice president is doing these things,” Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of We Testify, told CNN at in an interview. “But we were asking for very specific things, and we need to see those delivered.”
“It would be amazing to see her have a more forceful voice, to be able to say the word abortion unapologetically,” Sherman said, “to have her remind everyone in this country that everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion, and also to see the actions from the White House that match her energy.”
CNN’s Maegan Vazquez, Isaac Dovere, Kevin Liptak and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.