As Joe Biden’s newly announced running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris adds star power to the Democratic ticket, and would make history as the first woman to serve as vice president if Biden beats President Donald Trump in November.
But choosing Harris is not without its risks for Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who leads Trump in the polls heading into the Democratic National Convention next week. Harris — who is the first woman of color to make the ticket for either major party — stumbled as a presidential candidate in the primaries, and the former California attorney general remains unpopular with progressive voters because of her record on policing and criminal justice reform.
Biden makes history by choosing a woman of color
Harris faced stiff competition from a diverse field of potential running mates, among them several women of color. Those who reportedly made Biden’s short list included Rep. Karen Bass, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Susan Rice, who served as national security adviser to former President Barack Obama. But both had potential liabilities: Rice has never run for elected office, and Bass is not well known nationally.
Despite only entering the national political stage in 2016 when she was first elected to the Senate, Harris is already an established figure among Democratic voters after her White House bid and clashes with Trump’s judicial nominees on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her performance as a presidential candidate may have been uneven, but Harris showed flashes of brilliance that reminded voters why she’s been a rising Democratic star since her days as an attorney general. She has a compelling backstory as a barrier-breaking law enforcement official who worked her way up through California politics, and can be a powerful orator. At her best, Harris is an electric debater — a skill set on display when she clashed with Biden over school busing policies during the Democratic primary debates last year.
And while Harris didn’t poll well with Black voters as a presidential candidate, her addition to the ticket could increase Black turnout this fall in critical battleground states Biden needs in order to win the election.
Beyond the issue of turnout, in choosing a woman of color as his running mate, Biden sent a strong signal about his commitment to having diverse leadership in the White House — an issue at the forefront for many Democrats at a time of deep racial division in the country. Harris has been an outspoken proponent of police and criminal justice reform in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Her place on the ticket helps Biden signal to voters that those issues will remain front and center through the election.
Harris will anger some progressives …
Harris did not have a natural political base in the primaries, and a principal reason was that progressive Democrats attacked her record as a prosecutor and state attorney general. Liberal critics argued Harris consistently took conservative positions on criminal justice reform issues. Some labeled Harris as a “cop,” and the moniker stuck with progressives who still fault her for working within the law enforcement system instead of trying to reform it from the outside.
Harris was also criticized for flip-flopping on health care, after she issued multiple plans aimed at finding a middle ground on creating a universal health care system. Her campaign was beset by infighting, and she struggled to raise money after a promising rollout in early 2019.
Ultimately, Harris tried but failed to shake all the criticism, and dropped out of the race before the first primaries. During the vice presidential selection process, critics pointed to Harris’ struggles as a presidential candidate as proof that she wasn’t ready for national office.
… but she could appeal to moderate voters
Harris’ issues in the primaries might not matter nearly as much in a general election. The electorate will be more moderate overall than Democratic primary voters. When faced with a choice between Biden and Trump, many of the progressive voters who opposed Harris’ presidential candidacy may decide they can live with her as vice president if it means ousting Trump.
Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez touted Harris’ broad appeal in a statement praising her selection as the vice presidential nominee on Tuesday. “Throughout her career, Senator Harris has championed working families and helped us build a better nation for all — no matter what you look like, where you come from, who you love, or how you pray.”
Moreover, Harris is far less liberal than some of Biden’s other primary opponents, chiefly Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Had Biden chosen Warren, who was also reportedly on his shortlist, Republicans would likely have painted her as a far-left socialist whose policies would destroy the U.S. economy. The GOP will try that approach with Harris — and some already have — but her record gives them less ammunition.
As soon as the announcement was made, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., issued a statement criticizing Harris for supporting “Medicare for All” as a candidate and calling her 2020 White House bid a “mismanaged catastrophe.” The strategy is likely to resonate with some conservative voters, but moderate Republicans and independents may not buy it, especially after they learn more about Harris’ career in law enforcement.
Without a campaign trail, what impact will Harris have on the election?
Harris has been an enthusiastic campaigner her entire career, going all the way back to her first runs in California. She is a dynamic public speaker, at ease in smaller settings as well as large crowds. Under normal circumstances, Harris would be a major draw on the campaign trail.
But the 2020 election is anything but normal. With the limitations on travel and large gatherings imposed by the coronavirus, Harris may not have much of an opportunity to showcase her retail political skills. Biden asked Harris to be his running mate on a video call. That could be how many voters and donors interact with Harris in the weeks and months ahead, if state and local restrictions remain in place and campaigning continues to take place mostly online.
The DNC next week will offer a preview of how the Biden campaign plans to deploy Harris in the run-up to the election. It will also serve as a test run for Harris as she begins campaigning in the virtual world of COVID-19. Harris will get plenty of attention at the convention. But after that, the campaign will need to find creative ways to showcase her before November.
Harris vs. Pence, and the next face of the Democratic Party
By the time the presidential debates take place, most voters have already made up their minds. Political science research shows the vice presidential debate makes even less of a difference on the outcome of the election. Still, it’s a moment when voters get a clear glimpse of the future of their party.
Biden’s selection ensures Harris will be a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in four or eight years — depending on the result in November, and if Biden chooses to seek a second term should he win this fall. Regardless of the outcome, the 55-year-old Harris is young enough to remain on the national political scene for years to come.
Voters will no doubt be thinking to the future when they watch the debate between Harris and Vice President Mike Pence, a likely top contender for the GOP nomination in 2024. Pence welcomed Harris to the race Tuesday, after news of her announcement broke. He also issued an indirect attack against his new counterpart, according to a pool report of his remarks at an event in Arizona, saying “Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have been overtaken by the radical left.”
The criticism was a hint of what’s to come from Pence and the Trump campaign. Minutes after Biden’s announcement, the Trump campaign launched an ad attacking Harris, painting both her and Biden as “embracing” the “radical left.” Harris and Biden will no doubt fire back when they appear together in Delaware on Wednesday for the first time as running mates.