Kamala Harris Seeks to Define Role of No. 2 on Biden’s Ticket

Kamala Harris’s prime-time speech at the Democratic convention on Wednesday night will be the first glimpse of how Joe Biden’s campaign plans to deploy a history-making vice presidential nominee as they work to define her role for a campaign that has largely been grounded by the coronavirus.

The Biden campaign has a clear idea of the people they want Harris to win over in November: Black voters, younger voters and women. But as they strictly abide by health guidelines forced by coronavirus, they are severely limiting the candidates’ travel to in-person events and sharing few details about how Harris will engage with voters.

Harris, a California senator and former state attorney general, distinguished herself during the primaries with sharp attacks on Biden’s civil rights record, nearly turning the race upside-down and exposing a possible liability to Biden’s candidacy among liberals, minorities and young people.

Now, she’ll attempt to rally those same key constituencies around Biden, starting with the day before he accepts his party’s nomination. Her speech on Wednesday will be a critical opportunity to re-introduce herself to what will be one of the largest audiences she will reach before November. She is expected to share her cross-cultural origin story which echoes that of former President Barack Obama.

The daughter of divorced immigrant parents, a University of California-Berkeley biologist from India, and a Stanford economics professor from Jamaica, she grew up a child of the civil rights movement in 1960s Oakland, California. She later attended Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, DC.

That biography has energized key constituency groups, especially Black women. Members of her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority were mainstays on the campaign trail when she was running for president and are expected to mobilize in force to support the new ticket.

Harris will also have to navigate her background as a prosecutor after a summer of nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism. She was elected district attorney in San Francisco in 2003 and attorney general of California in 2010. After her election to the U.S. Senate in 2017, she earned a reputation for her incisive cross-examination of witness in Senate hearings, in particular Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

She’s already signaling that she’ll bring that prosecutorial style to the campaign.

“The case against Donald Trump and Mike Pence is open and shut,” she said last week as Biden announced her as his running mate.

In the week since, she’s proved to be a safe choice, but not a game-changing one. And that’s the best that any presidential candidate can ask for.

“I don’t think it matters who the vice presidential candidate is historically,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on MSNBC before Harris was selected. She noted exceptions like “Lyndon Johnson for victory and Sarah Palin for defeat,” but added, “By and large it’s all about the two candidates for president.”

Indeed, polls show Harris has made no difference to the vast majority of voters. An ABC/Washington Post poll Monday found 69% said the choice did not make them more or less likely to vote for the Democratic ticket. Only 18%, mostly liberals and African Americans, said Harris made them more likely to vote for Biden, and 11% said they were less likely to vote for the former vice president.

Still, she seems to have passed the most important test. Voters see her as just as ready to take over the presidency as current Vice President Mike Pence, with 55% of voters seeing them both as qualified.

Christopher Devine of the University of Dayton, and Kyle Kopco, authors of the book “Do Running Mates Matter?” say the choice matters mostly because of what it says about the candidate at the top of the ticket. The pick is the first presidential decision a candidate makes, and this one provides a window into Biden’s judgment and his ideology.

“It’s a signal of whether Joe Biden is going to the left or anchoring himself in the center where he’s always stood,” Devine said. “Harris probably nudges him a little to the left. At the very least it’s a signal that he sees the importance of the left to his campaign.”

During her 10-month campaign for the presidential nomination, Harris herself struggled to define herself ideologically in a crowded field of candidates. She positioned herself to the left of moderates like Biden, but never ventured as far as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

She briefly soared to second place in the polls after her debate takedown of Biden’s past positions on forced busing to enforce school desegregation and his work with senators who were segregationists.

But among the biggest differences with Biden during the primary campaign was her short-lived support for Medicare for All — the latest branding of a single-payer, government-run health care system. She retreated from that position while still a presidential candidate.

Her lack of a defined message combined with staff infighting and fundraising struggles led to the demise of her campaign in December, an early exit that likely helped preserve her chances to join the ticket.

After Wednesday’s speech, Harris’s next big moment will be her debate against Pence in October, but most of her attacks are sure to be directed to the top of the Republican ticket. And how Trump responds could be more revealing than the attacks themselves.

Trump has called her a “mad woman,” the “meanest” senator, a “nasty” woman and “disrespectful” to his Supreme Court picks and even Biden himself.

“We’ve seen this with Donald Trump going back to 2016,” Devine said. “His response seems to be more aggressive when it comes to being challenged by women as opposed to men.

“Kamala Harris could be that threat,” he said.

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