Kamala Harris, Frontrunner

She’s got money, a good staff, and lots of TV time. She’s also not bad at Twitter.
by Liz Mair
February 7, 2019
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(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

America is now officially just one year away from the first hurdle in the 2020 presidential contest—the Iowa caucuses—and California Senator Kamala Harris looks like the woman to beat—at least for now.

Unlike some big dogs in the Democratic Party who have yet to formally enter the race (ahem, Sherrod Brown and Joe Biden), Harris is already off her mark and running strong. Whether she ultimately wins or loses, she sure looks like a contender. Here’s why.

1) Money. Sure, contrary to conventional wisdom, it can’t actually buy a presidential win. But it is an important factor. And while there’s a popular fiction that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren will be the force to be reckoned with when it comes to those all-important online, small-dollar contributions that are easy to repeat and require little investment of a candidate’s time or energy to generate, Harris has proved stronger than Warren where fundraising is concerned. She did so straight out of the gate.

As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, “Federal Election Commission filings showed that in the first 15 hours after announcing her 2020 presidential exploratory committee, Ms. Warren raised just under $300,000 online through the fundraising platform ActBlue—less than one-third the $1 million in online donations that rival hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris said she raised in her first 12 hours as a candidate.”

That means not just that Harris is better-equipped to pay for the best staff, the best consultants, and lots of ads and other bells and whistles, but also that she already has a substantial grassroots base. Thatputs her in a better position than most candidates, right here and right now.

2) Campaign staff. News of Harris’s quality hires made campaign professionals sit up and take notice.

Yes, since early 2017, there has been chatter particularly on the right about her hiring ex-Hillary Clinton staff, first into her Senate office and now into her presidential campaign—the implication being that since Clinton proved a two-time loser, these were questionable hires that did little more than demonstrate Harris’ early presidential ambition.

But her communications director, Lily Adams, worked for Clinton in Iowa—a state whose caucuses Clinton failed to win in 2008, but which she did win in 2016. It’s also a state that also has exhibited very little interest in elevating female candidates (though it has recently changed its tune most notably on the GOP side, with the election of Senator Joni Ernst and Governor Kim Reynolds). Maybe Iowa isn’t inherently sexist, or maybe it is; but it’s hard to argue, given its history and given Adams’ experience, that her hire isn’t a smart one. Let’s also acknowledge the obvious: If nothing else, Adams knows how to beat a surging populist candidate trying to outflank a big, perhaps more “mainstream” name in the first caucus state, in America’s heartland. That will be significant, given who Harris will probably end up running against, once all the candidates are in.

Let’s also not forget that while Harris does have Adams and Clinton vets Marc Elias and David Huynh on her team, she also maintains as her primary advisers San Francisco firm SCRB. For those who know California politics, this is interesting because SCRB advised former California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat who demonstrated a savviness in grabbing Republican and Republican-inclined voters’ support in his 2010 run for governor and who a lot of Republicans in California (and elsewhere) will privately admit bothers them a whole lot less than other big names in Democratic politics.

And Harris has nabbed other top talent, too. David Binder, her pollster, worked on President Obama’s presidential races. Her digital operation is being run by a firm led by a former Bernie Sanders digital staffer—significant, because digital was one area where Sanders outflanked Clinton in 2016.

In Iowa, Harris’ campaign is headed by Deidre DeJear, the Democratic nominee for secretary of state there last year (experience that should enable her to organize on Harris’ behalf across the Hawkeye State).

In New Hampshire, Harris has hired Craig Brown, who has a reputation for helping female candidates win, as her state director. He managed Molly Kelly’s 2018 campaign for governor; she beat her Democratic primary opponent by a 2-1 margin. He also managed the 2017 campaign of Manchester’s first-ever elected female mayor.

3) TV time. It is one of those sometimes-disregarded metrics that can really make or break a campaign. Harris got a lot of it during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, during which she handled herself better than several other Democrats —especially her fellow California Democrat, Dianne Feinstein. Harris nabbed still more her campaign announcement on Good Morning America. Her official announcement on Martin Luther King Jr. Day ensured yet more media attention. As any good political consultant will tell you, TV time strongly correlates with electoral viability.

4) Social media presence. As data compiled by CrowdTangle, a social media analysis tool, and published by Axios demonstrates, within the realm of political Twitter, Harris’ account is the third-most “interacted” with, right after President Trump’s and that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her chair-dancing might not feel as natural as AOC’s Instagam dinner stories but Harris does beat former President Obama and Nancy Pelosi on this front—another indicator that whether people love her, or hate her, she’s a player.

And odds are, among Democrats, people love her. She has been criticized for her legacy as a prosecutor, and denigrated as a “cop.” But she appears to have attracted more than 20,000 people to her campaign kickoff speech in Oakland. That’s several thousand more than Obama did when he kicked off his 2008 race, and he was already regarded as a Democratic Party rock star. That suggests that like Obama and President Trump—and other previous presidential winners—Harris will be able to draw a crowd, which in turn means she will amass name ID quickly—another big hurdle in a crowded field of candidates that could potentially include a former vice president.

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Harris is also garnering the kinds of attacks already that suggest her opponents—within her party and outside of it—see her as a major threat. Most specifically, she has already become the target of new “birther” attacks. After the Obama and Ted Cruz birther experiences of 2008 and 2016, respectively, that feels like a solid indicator that opponents feel the need to discredit her straight out of the gate.

But the nature of the attacks also helps point back to her personal background, as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants. To be clear, I don’t believe the famed “black-brown coalition” that Obama assembled and which helped propel him to two presidential wins voted for him because of his mixed-race heritage or skin color. But I do believe his status as a younger, charismatic, non-white guy may have helped him get an extra look from minority voters, who then liked what they saw. A lot.

Harris can  replicate this, and in 2020, it may matter more than ever. African-American women have arguably been a deciding factor in swinging races in Alabama (where 98 percent of them voted for Sen. Doug Jones), Virginia (where 91 percent voted for Gov. Ralph Northam) and New Jersey (where 94 percent voted for Gov. Phil Murphy), all according to exit polls.

Harris’ campaign slogan, “For the People” both strikes a populist tone (appropriate, given the current mood of the most die-hard Democratic voters) and taps into her record as a prosecutor, a job that naturally associates itself with toughness.

That, in turn, seems to be a personal quality that a lot of women, including African-American women, both empathize with and prioritize—but also one that voters disenchanted with Trump  (and God knows that’s African-American women, of whom about 90 percent disapprove)—are likely to want in a Democratic nominee.

Yes, critics—particularly concern-trolling #MAGA-types—will say the Democratic Party shouldn’t, and isn’t going to bite on an Obama-redux: a Senate newbie, of mixed-race heritage and a darker skin tone, from a very liberal state.

But the fact is, Obama won the presidency twice, created a blueprint that can potentially be followed again, and Democrats want the White House back bad enough they may not want to get super-creative in forging a pathway to it.

The Harris-Obama comparisons only go so far, of course. Harris’ service as California attorney general before becoming a U.S. senator gives her an experience bump that starkly differentiates her from the former president, as does her gender and apparent propensity for physical brawling back in the day, as evidenced by the “took off her earrings before getting in a fight with Jamie Dimon” story retold in her book.

For the time being at least, count Harris as a frontrunner and a contender. Undoubtedly, there will be others, but she’s off to a solid start.

Liz Mair

Liz Mair is a former communications adviser to the Republican National Committee, Carly Fiorina, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, and Scott Walker. She supported and campaigned for Gary Johnson in 2016. She is also the founder, owner, and president of strategic communications firm Mair Strategies LLC.