But retail politics, so far, is not her thing
Kamala Harris is at the Mars Cafe, an environmentally conscious coffee shop on the edge of Drake University’s campus, to grab a coffee and meet some students for a photo op. When she places her order, Harris knows she wants an iced coffee but isn’t sure whether she should choose soy milk, almond milk, or oat milk to go with it. The barista helpfully has a recommendation: “Oat milk is the most sustainable of the alternative milks,” he says, later explaining that California’s almonds consume a considerable amount of resources. The California senator happily heeds the advice of the potential Iowa caucus-goer, perhaps becoming a little more enlightened along the way.
At the moment, Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign is a bit like oat milk: not exciting but potentially the most sustainable of the Democratic alternatives to front-runners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Harris has faded somewhat in the polls since she first launched her campaign, while former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke and South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg are taking their turns in the spotlight. Harris was in second place, at 18 percent, in an Iowa poll conducted by Emerson a week after she launched her campaign in late January. By the end of March, Emerson found that Harris had dropped to 10 percent and was sitting in fourth place in Iowa, behind, respectively, Biden, Sanders, and Buttigieg. (As of this writing, Biden has not announced that he is running.) At the same time, Harris’s $12 million fundraising haul for the first three months of 2019 bested that of every Democratic candidate in the field except Sanders.
Despite her dip in the polls, the case for Harris as the Democratic nominee remains compelling: Biden and Sanders are too old; O’Rourke and Buttigieg are too inexperienced. In the Goldilocks theory of the race, Kamala Harris is just right. The 54-year-old biracial first-term female senator checks almost every box, in terms of both intersectional identity politics and the progressive policy agenda, including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. And she is cozy enough with the tech titans of Silicon Valley to raise lots of money. Harris is almost the perfect synthesis of the modern Democratic party.
“If she was a stock right now, I’d buy her,” Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s presidential-campaign manager, said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on April 11. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign chief, told CNBC at the end of March that a Kamala Harris–Beto O’Rourke ticket would offer Democrats their “best shot” at defeating Trump in 2020.
Here inside the Mars Cafe, Lily Feiger, a junior studying politics at Drake, tells me she’s still undecided about which Democrat she’ll back in the 2020 caucuses. But she sees a lot to like in Harris. “I love her,” says Feiger. “I think she has what Hillary didn’t have. And I loved Hillary, and I think she was the most qualified candidate we’ve ever had ever. But I think she just wasn’t personable enough. And I think Kamala is.”
So why hasn’t Harris taken off in the polls? On the trail, the answer is pretty obvious: She’s running a scripted and methodical (you might even say boring) campaign focused on fundraising and policy proposals. Her latest big idea is $315 billion of federal spending to raise the salaries of public-school teachers.
While Beto O’Rourke crisscrossed Iowa, holding 23 events in March and April, Harris, according to the Des Moines Register, held zero events there in March and just two during her recent April trip (in addition to her unannounced trip to the Mars Cafe): a town hall at the University of Iowa that drew more than 900 attendees and a small house party at a supporter’s home in Des Moines.
“Right now, that’s fine, but sooner or later, she’s going to have to put the time in there to win it,” Joe Trippi, the veteran Democratic campaign consultant, tells National Review. Caucus-goers want to see the candidates up close, not just at a big rally or on TV. “You’ve got to do the retail politics of the state.” Trippi, who worked with top Harris strategist Ace Smith on Jerry Brown’s 2010 California gubernatorial race, says that Harris has built an impressive fundraising operation and campaign team.
There has been some talk in the press that Harris might not actually need to win any of the February 2020 contests and that she can rely on her delegate-rich home state of California, which moved up its primary to March 3, as a firewall. But history suggests that would be a foolish strategy; ask Rudy Giuliani and Marco Rubio how their “Florida firewall” held up in the 2008 and 2016 GOP primaries. Polling also casts doubt on that tactic: A Quinnipiac survey in April found Harris in third place, behind Biden and Sanders, respectively, in the Golden State. “To a lot of Californians, she is still a cipher,” Bill Whalen, of the California-based Hoover Institution, tells me. Whalen notes that Bernie Sanders has about 100,000 donors in California.
“I think they know they’ve got to win South Carolina,” Trippi says of the Harris campaign. “But I think they also know they’ve got to score before then — a third, or a second,” depending on who would come in ahead of Harris. The Democratic party awards delegates on a proportional basis, but the early states will still have their traditional effect of shaping the race. Would Barack Obama’s national coalition have come together in 2008 if he hadn’t won Iowa? “No way,” Trippi says.
Political operatives and pundits have called Harris the “female Obama” since before she was first elected as California’s attorney general in 2010, a label that Harris has long dismissed in the way that a star college quarterback might dismiss comparisons to Tom Brady — just enough to provide a passing attempt at humility.
On the campaign trail, however, the comparison between Obama and Harris does indeed seem inapt. Obama was famous for his soaring and inspirational speeches. Harris seems to consciously reject “hope and change” rhetoric. On the stump, Obama boldly and vaguely declared, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” The peroration of Harris’s stump speech is modest: “We are better than this.”
“For those of us who speak behind a microphone or behind a podium, there’s an incentive that we will make everyone feel lovely — sprinkle lovely dust all over the room, and everyone will applaud, and [the] job will have been done. Well, speaking truth doesn’t always accomplish that goal,” Harris told the crowd gathered at the Des Moines house party on April 11. Yet the plainspoken truths Harris then delivers don’t seem all that bold: the need for a $6,000 middle-class tax cut, for boosting the average teacher’s pay by $12,200, and for renewing the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.
Harris seems to assiduously avoid making unwanted headlines. The one exception during her trip to Iowa was her explanation of why she owns a handgun, and it was the only comment widely picked up by national press. “I own a gun for probably the reason that a lot of people do — for personal safety. I was a career prosecutor,” Harris told reporters after the party. A Harris-campaign spokesperson would not tell National Review whether her firearm is a semiautomatic, like most handguns. In a general election, Harris’s gun could reassure millions of fellow gun owners, but right now she is trying to win over progressive voters, some of whom would like to see all semiautomatic weapons banned.
Another fun-house-mirror effect of the Democratic primary is that her biggest vulnerability is the charge that she was an overzealous prosecutor. She supported a law that mandated jail time for parents of chronically truant children, and she faces allegations of working to uphold wrongful convictions. But in a general election, one of her biggest weaknesses would be the charge that she was too soft on crime.
As San Francisco district attorney, Harris declined to seek the death penalty for a man who had murdered police officer Isaac Espinoza with an AK-47 in 2004. At Espinoza’s funeral, Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein called on Harris to seek the death penalty and received a standing ovation from police officers in attendance. “This is not only the definition of tragedy, it’s the special circumstance called for by the death-penalty law,” Feinstein said. California enacted a law in 1977 allowing the death penalty only in special circumstances, including when a police officer is murdered. In early April of this year, Espinoza’s widow spoke on camera for the first time. “She did not call me,” Renata Espinoza said of Harris in a tearful interview with CNN. “I felt like she had just taken something from us. She had just taken justice from us.”
When Harris ran for attorney general in 2010, the only time she has faced a Republican in a statewide election, her handling of the Espinoza case was a major campaign issue. She won the election by less than one percentage point while every other Democrat running for statewide office won by double digits. If Harris is the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, Blue Lives Matter would very likely be a central theme of the Trump campaign. Harris has pledged that if she is elected president, no one on federal death row, including the Boston Marathon bomber and the Charleston-church shooter, would be executed.
Pure California progressivism pitted against Trumpian nationalism would be an ugly fight. But Harris remains a strong contender for the nomination. It is a fight that many Democratic-primary voters would like to see.
This article appears as “Kamala Harris Goes to Iowa” in the May 6, 2019, print edition of National Review.