vision 2020

Kamala Harris Facing Home-State Heartburn

Her candidacy was born in California. Will it be buried there? Photo: David Becker/Getty Images

In the original strategic vision of Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign, her home state of California was supposed to be the place where she establishes herself as the dominant front-runner. Now she’s looking pretty bad in the polls there, and at this weekend’s California Democratic Convention in Long Beach, despite what were publicly many signs of affection for the state’s junior senator, there was a lot of sub rosa talk about how and when she should drop out of the race. Naturally, Politico got wind of it all:

[I]n the halls and meeting rooms of the Long Beach Convention Center, many of the battle-scarred Democratic insiders — strategists, elected officials, campaign operatives — had a far more caustic view of her chances, suggesting that Harris’ team has already let slip away her shot at the White House.

With California polls strongly suggesting she might not win, place — or even show — in her home state, many privately expressed the view that Harris should begin seriously considering leaving the race to avoid total embarrassment in the state’s early March primary. Her continued weakness in the presidential contest could even have a more damaging effect, several said — encouraging a primary challenger in 2022, when Harris is up for reelection.

The name “Tom Steyer” seems to have occurred to people as a potential 2022 rival for Harris.

There’s no question her numbers in the Golden State are looking mighty poor: She’s been at an even 8 percent in the last four public polls of California, placing her in a distant fourth place, behind Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders, who are all in the 20s in the RealClearPolitics polling averages. Her bigger problem, though, is that she’s doing even worse in the states that were supposed to be her springboard to a big Super Tuesday win on her home turf.

In September Harris said she was “f—ing moving to Iowa,” indicating she was all-in on emulating Barack Obama’s successful 2008 strategy of proving her viability there in order to impress the African-American voters of South Carolina. But over this last weekend Ann Selzer’s gold-standard Iowa Poll placed her at 3 percent there, tied for sixth place with Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer and Cory Booker. And in the RealClearPolitics averages for New Hampshire, Harris is tied for eighth place with Tom Steyer.

In Nevada, which of course is next door to California, Harris is at 4 percent in the polling averages. She’s has been doing marginally better in her most crucial state, South Carolina, with its majority-black primary electorate. Back during her brief polling surge last summer, she looked to be chipping away at Joe Biden’s African-American support in the Palmetto State. Not so much any more: a new Quinnipiac survey of South Carolina shows her in seventh place there with just 3 percent of the vote. Among African-Americans, she’s at 6 percent, trailing Biden (44 percent), Sanders (10 percent), and Warren (8 percent) in that demographic.

It’s unclear how or where Harris can revive her fortunes, particularly given the “campaign in disarray” gossip that surrounds her these days. (Politico, which apparently delights in tormenting her, published an article last week with this headline: “No discipline. No plan. No strategy. Kamala Harris campaign in meltdown.” She had a decent third-quarter fundraising effort, pulling in $11.6 million. But the staff layoffs her team has been executing are as bad a sign as her flagging poll numbers.

So no wonder some of her California friends think she needs to start looking ahead to 2022 and protect her flanks from a potential Democratic challenge. Harris’s last close election was in 2010, when she edged Republican Steve Cooley to become attorney general. And failed presidential candidates resume their old careers without long-term damage all the time (e.g., 2016 Republican candidates Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, and Ted Cruz, who all won statewide elections after bombing at the presidential level).

But in politics as in nature, weakness can attract predators, and so the decision Harris may have to make (she can withdraw from the California primary next month and get her name off the March 3 ballot) is when and whether she has crossed the line between a long-shot candidacy and a career-hammering disaster. She may need a good performance at this week’s Democratic debate in Atlanta more than anyone, with the possible exception of her Senate colleague Cory Booker.

Kamala Harris Facing Home-State Heartburn