2020 election

Kamala Harris Updates Obama’s Winning Strategy for 2020

California senator Kamala Harris is trying to figure out how to outflank a potentially huge presidential field. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If you’re thinking about running for president, particularly in the kind of wide-open, crowded field Democrats face in 2020, one of the first things you want to do is to convince the chattering classes of U.S. politics that you have a credible path to the nomination and then the White House. So it’s not surprising that the staff of one probable candidate, Senator Kamala Harris, is making her strategy known to the bulletin board of said chattering classes, Politico.

Sen. Kamala Harris’ advisers are privately discussing a rough Democratic primary strategy that would focus heavily on Iowa, but with an eye toward high-value nominating contests coming later in Nevada, South Carolina and California — more diverse states where her candidacy might resonate with larger minority communities.

If this sounds familiar, that could be because it’s the strategy successfully pursued by another freshman senator with a multiracial background in 2008: establish your political chops by winning in nearly-all-white Iowa and then consolidate minority support in the South and in urban states with large African-American populations. Indeed, Harris has an advantage that Barack Obama did not enjoy: her own home state of California has moved its primary up until March 3, just after the initial quartet of events in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

In the sports language often used (along with combat and gambling lingo) by political operatives, one of Harris’s people called this strategy: “the SEC primary meets the West Coast offense.” And it makes sense, on paper, particularly if Harris can go into South Carolina with a head of steam and win there.

There are some problems with an updated Obama strategy for 2020, however. For one thing, Kamala Harris is not Barack Obama. She got some positive attention from progressive activists for her combative posture on the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings (though Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono got even more plaudits). But she hasn’t had an oratorical breakthrough like Obama’s star turn during the 2004 Democratic Convention, and the supra-partisan posture that helped Obama win over independents and even some Republicans in Iowa really isn’t Harris’s thing — or the country’s, as Perry Bacon, Jr. observed earlier this year:

Harris can’t take the Obama “Kumbaya” route to the White House — I’m not sure at this point that a white Democrat could, either. By the end of his term, Obama didn’t sound particularly hopeful about America getting beyond its cultural divides. Clinton spoke more directly about race and racism in 2016 compared with Obama in 2004 and 2008. Sanders and other white Democrats are already talking taking fairly liberal stances on these issues, and I expect that to continue into next year.

So Harris will compete for partisan Democrats like everyone else. And while she has a very progressive voting record in the Senate, a lot of lefties don’t like or trust her, as Ryan Cooper explains:

The former attorney general of California, Harris is mistrusted by the left mostly because of her roots as a prosecutor….

Most notoriously, she refused to prosecute Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s old company OneWest for numerous instances of almost certain illegal foreclosure, against the advice of her own Consumer Law Section, and has so far refused to say why. (She was also the only Senate Democratic candidate to get a donation from Mnuchin himself in 2016.)

And while no rival can match Harris’s diversity claims as a woman with a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, she does not have Obama’s luck in being the only African-American likely to run. Her Judiciary Committee colleague Cory Booker, who has developed an Obama-esque blending of progressive and moderate messages, is already competing with Harris for attention and resources in South Carolina. And former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, more of a technocratic centrist, is mulling a run as well. All of these potential candidates must consider whether Obama’s ability to consolidate African-American votes was a one-time thing limited to his historic candidacy (though Harris would represent a gender breakthrough).

The other possible problem for Harris is that her home-state flank might be exposed. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, a moderate with a connection to California’s huge Latino community, is openly considering a 2020 run. So is Bay Area congressman Eric Swalwell — hardly a household name, but he is from Harris’s home turf. San Diego–based congressman Adam Schiff, a regular on national television, is playing with the idea, too. If billionaire Tom Steyer, whose heavy spending on Democratic candidates this year alongside a campaign for Trump’s impeachment has made him something of a household name, decides to run for president, his money alone would be a problem for Harris. And you never know when some other moneybags from Silicon Valley might see the next president of the United States in the bathroom mirror. In any event, while Harris has a big advantage in the Golden State over non-Californians in the field (with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders, who finished a close second there in the 2016 primary), it also means she has to win there.

So while Harris has a credible path to becoming one of the small group of candidates likely to survive the early going, there would be no room for error. And when they aren’t whispering to Politico, her political team would be well advised to come up with a distinctive message for their boss. Identity alone won’t be enough for Harris in 2020, even when paired with a good strategy.

Kamala Harris Updates Obama’s Winning Strategy for 2020