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When Tennessee Republicans moved to expel state Democratic lawmakers who protested at the state capitol over gun violence, the White House sent Vice President Harris to Nashville to call out GOP tactics.
And when Florida passed controversial new educational guidelines for how slavery and other topics should be taught in schools, it was Harris who was quickly on a flight to Jacksonville to denounce “extremists” who she said were pushing “propaganda” on children.
Harris has settled into something of a traditional attack dog role in recent months, fighting what the White House views as hypocrisy or extreme policies pushed by Republicans as she and President Biden prepare for what could be an intense, mud-slinging 2024 campaign next year.
But the role also comes with its risks, with polls consistently showing many Americans hold an unfavorable view of the first woman and minority to serve as vice president — and one tied to a president with similarly lackluster popularity. Yet, strategists say it could also be a good thing when it comes to her own political future beyond the next election.
“If you think about her political position, she’s thinking about Joe Biden being reelected, and then she’s running four years from now,” said one strategist who has worked on Democratic campaigns. “So, a role where she’s attacking Ron DeSantis, [former President] Trump and others is perfect, because it gives her a lot of visibility with the base and the people who will be deciding the next nominee.”
“I think it’s also a place where she’s comfortable. She was always great at calling out Trump and [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell,” the strategist added. “Where she’s struggled is articulating her vision for the future.”
Harris has been put in charge of issues the White House believes resonates with voters — abortion, voting rights, book bans — placing her in prime position to attack “extremist, so-called leaders” in the Republican Party.
She notably set her sights last week on Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Republican candidate that consistently polls second behind Trump, who is considered Biden’s chief political opponent in the general election.
While in the Sunshine State on Friday, Harris accused Republicans of lying about slavery, in response to new guidelines in the state that require lessons on race to be taught in an “objective” manner that does not seek to “indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view.”
The new guidelines require teachers to instruct on “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
“They are creating these unnecessary debates,” Harris said Friday. “This is unnecessary to debate whether enslaved people benefited from slavery. Are you kidding me? Are we supposed to debate that?”
David Thomas, former deputy director of legislative affairs for former Vice President Al Gore, said Harris’s last-minute decisions to respond in-person in Tennessee and Florida represent her team’s nimbleness.
“It is not an easy task to get a principal like the president or vice president somewhere in a moment’s notice, and it seems like Harris and her team are more and more willing to go to where they can be heard, and be relevant on a moment’s notice,” Thomas said.
A Democratic National Committee spokesperson noted that Harris also took on the role of criticizing GOP actions to restrict access to reproductive rights ahead of the 2022 midterms, when Democrats saw better-than-expected results.
“What we’ve seen over the last few months is the vice president responding and reacting to this extremism from Republicans, and she’s done a very good job speaking to people about the stakes of what Republicans are doing and making sure that people are motivated and galvanizing,” the spokesperson said.
But, the strategy is not without risks for Harris and the White House.
Republicans have turned the vice president into one of their favorite punching bags, often recycling clips of Harris using awkward turns of phrase and portraying her as out of touch with the public.
A Pew Research Center poll released last week showed 59 percent of Americans viewed Harris unfavorably, compared to 36 percent who said they have a favorable opinion of her. That’s a negative shift from a year ago, when 52 percent said they viewed Harris unfavorably and 43 percent viewed her favorably, according to Pew.
One source with ties to Harris’s team said one pitfall for Harris is that her political future and standing in the public is largely tied to Biden, as evidenced by the duo’s similar favorability ratings.
Democrats, though, argue that there isn’t a downside to Harris taking on the attack dog role because she is focusing on top issues that are vital to Democrats. And, she has been focusing on key constituencies recently to build a coalition that will give the Biden-Harris ticket an edge over the GOP nominee next November.
On Monday, she spoke at the UnidosUS annual conference in Chicago about how the Biden-Harris administration is benefiting Hispanic families. Earlier this month, she spoke at the Rainbow Push Coalition to honor civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, and is slated to speak to the NAACP national convention in Boston later this week.
“If they’re gonna win reelection, I think for her to be out there talking about choice or gun safety or social justice — these are issues that I think will determine who wins or loses the election,” Thomas said. “I don’t see a lot of downside to her talking about this sort of stuff.”