Why Kamala Harris Hasn’t Caught Fire in the Democratic 2020 Race

by Sahil Kapur

Kamala Harris entered the presidential race with impressive credentials — a popular black woman with an inspiring story who hailed from a large Democratic state and drew accolades for her fiery questioning of President Donald Trump’s nominees.

Yet despite a shot of adrenaline after confronting front-runner Joe Biden in the first debate, she has failed to catch fire with Democratic voters who are torn between a nostalgic fondness for Biden and a revolutionary desire for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

Harris’s attempt to replicate her feat in the second debate backfired among Democrats who say she went too negative on Biden. The Californian also suffers from a perception that she lacks a deep ideological well to guide her policy ideas, in contrast to her three main rivals who are better-defined. And her past as a prosecutor has earned her supporters and detractors.

Harris and Senator Cory Booker “really went after Vice President Biden — it rebounded to their detriment that they went after Biden so much. Because it also looked like they were not just going after Biden, but they were going after the Obama legacy,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which is neutral in the primaries.

Weingarten said many Democrats left the June debate thinking, “Kamala seems really feisty and let’s look at her.” But in the July debate they were turned off by Harris and other aggressors because “it looked like they were burning the house down, as opposed to building on what Democrats believe in.”

Harris surged from about 7% to 15% in averages of Democratic polls immediately after the first debate in late June, putting her in second or third place in the crowded field. But it was a sugar high — she’s back to the 7% she had when summer began.

For Harris, the danger is that she’s another Marco Rubio. The Florida senator, too, had a potentially history-making candidacy during the Republican nomination battle in 2016 and was hailed by the party establishment as presidential timber, before he failed to translate that on the ground.

“Our focus is on winning the primary, not an off-year August news cycle, which is why we’ve spent the summer building the grassroots organizing foundation that will propel Kamala to victory in this race,” Harris spokesman Ian Sams said in an email. “These races are marathons, not sprints, and Kamala is a long-distance runner.”

‘Too Flippy-Floppy’

In late July, Harris backed off her previous support for replacing private insurance with a national government plan and released a proposal that preserves the option for private plans, positioning herself ideologically between Sanders and Biden on one of the most contentious issues in the race.

But rather than placating both wings, the move drew fire from all sides — the Sanders campaign accused her of going soft, Biden charged her with “double talk,” and voters were left wondering what she stands for.

“Too flippy-floppy. I just don’t like her,” said Debby Fisher of Richmond, California — near Harris’s hometown of Oakland — who plans to support Sanders.

Suzanne Cowan of San Francisco said she soured on Harris after her change on health care.

“That’s not my kind of candidate. Either you know what issues you support and you have the courage to stand up for them or you don’t,” she said. “For me she’s ‘I’ll be in favor of whatever is trending’ — and that doesn’t cut it.”

‘Her Brilliance, Her Passion’

Patrick Kollar of Roy, Washington, who recently attended a Warren rally in Seattle, said he’s unsure how to define Harris ideologically.

“That’s a problem,” he said. “I follow politics pretty closely and I don’t know what she’s about.”

Earlier: I Believe in Capitalism’: Harris Courts Big Donors in Hamptons

Harris has set herself apart on culturally salient issues like immigration and gun control with far-reaching legislative proposals and executive actions to tackle two high priorities for Democratic voters. At the same time, she has downplayed ideological labels and branded herself as the “3 a.m. agenda” candidate who’s focused on problems that keep Americans up at night.

“I lost my son to gun violence,” said Lynette McElhaney of Oakland, adding that she was drawn to Harris’s aggressive positions on gun control. “And critically important, she sent her staff to stand with me when my son was killed in Los Angeles.”

She said she supports Harris for “her mind, her brilliance, her passion, her heart.”

McElhaney was among the Harris volunteers who lined the halls at the Democratic National Committee summer meeting in San Francisco. They had donned “Kamala Harris for the people” T-shirts and campaign gear and chanted slogans for their candidate.

Harris’s past as a prosecutor — seven years as San Francisco district attorney and six years as California attorney general — is a mixed bag. Some Democrats say it’s the reason she was so effective when questioning William Barr and Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s nominees for attorney general and the Supreme Court. Others say she fought too hard to achieve and sustain convictions in dubious circumstances.

Rubio Redux?

In some ways, Harris risks falling into the same trap that ensnared Rubio in 2016 — eloquent on the stump, adept at raising money, acceptable across the party spectrum but not loved by enough voters.

“Harris is trying to run in a lane very similar to what Rubio tried to do in 2016,” said Alex Conant, the communications director for Rubio’s presidential campaign. “They’re both new faces, running as next-generation candidates against candidates that in many ways represent the past. They came into the campaign with ideological credentials but a message that would play well in the general.”

“It’s a good strategy for coming in second,” he quipped. “If you’re acceptable to everyone you’re not necessarily loved by anyone.”

Conant said the key for Harris is to pick an early state to win. Rubio split his efforts about equally in the first four states and landed several top-three finishes, but failed to win any of them.

“At some point you need to win somewhere,” Conant said. “You need to be people’s first choice.”

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