Home-state skepticism of Kamala Harris foretold trouble

STEVE PEOPLES, KATHLEEN RONAYNE and ERRIN HAINES
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Election 2020 Kamala Harris

FILE - In this Nov. 21, 2019, file photo, then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens to a question in the spin room after a Democratic presidential primary debate in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — When Sen. Kamala Harris entered the presidential race in January, her California roots were supposed to give her special access to the cash and delegates required to win the Democratic nomination. Instead, she faced headwinds in her home state that would become a microcosm for the trouble that ultimately forced her sudden departure from the contest.

One by one, politically active celebrities lined up behind Harris' rivals, such as Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. Many of the state's energized progressive activists lent their passion and small-dollar donations to Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont or Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. And those who weren't yet paying close attention to the 2020 race — and there were many in a state of nearly 40 million people — gravitated to the name they knew best: former Vice President Joe Biden.

A quiet but significant turning point came in late March, when prominent California donor Susie Tompkins Buell, who had backed Harris, began supporting Buttigieg as well.

“When she started lending her name to other candidates, I think that was the first sign of trouble that things were not well,” said veteran California Democratic strategist Rose Kapolczynski.

Harris told staff and supporters on Tuesday that she simply didn't have the money to stay in the race. She ended her first White House bid before more than a dozen of her rivals despite being a political superstar in a state with the most convention delegates and with premier access to a donor class that is widely considered the political world's piggy bank.

In the end, it wasn't enough to help her stand out in the Democratic Party's crowded 2020 presidential class.

Having raised close to $12 million in each of the year's first three quarters, Harris was on pace to raise closer to $3 million this quarter, according to a campaign operative who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss her struggling fundraising operation. It was barely enough to keep the lights on, never mind fund the television ads she needed to compete in the primary states that matter most.

Although Iowa had become the epicenter of her campaign in recent weeks, Harris hadn't run a television ad there since August.

She had at least six California fundraisers planned through December with lawyers, entertainment executives and others, though those involved in the planning conceded that it was becoming increasingly difficult to sell tickets.

A Santa Monica-based attorney and co-host of one of the events, Shawn Holley, said on the eve of Harris' departure that she was encountering skepticism from donors following a flood of negative news coverage. Holley called it a "vicious cycle" of people not wanting to contribute to a downhill campaign, making it harder for the campaign to rebound.

"They believe she's awesome. They believe that she would be the best person to debate Trump," Holley said. But they were concerned “she's not going to get the chance to do any of these things, and therefore why should they put their money behind something that can't win?”

Yet those who followed her campaign closely suggest the California senator's fundraising challenges were a lagging indicator of a more fundamental problem that plagued her almost from the very day she announced her candidacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day more than 10 months ago. She never really answered the most important questions facing any candidate running for office: Who are you and what do you stand for?

Her slogan “For the people” referenced her career as a prosecutor, a record that was viewed skeptically by the party’s most progressive voters. Through the summer, she shifted her focus to pocketbook issues and a “3 a.m. agenda,” a message that fell flat. By the fall, she returned to her courtroom roots: “Justice is on the ballot,” she repeated at virtually every campaign appearance, a message that was a cry for economic and social justice. And most recently, she tried to stand out as Trump's chief protagonist, arguing that she could “prosecute the case” against a “criminal” president.

“Harris made a play that she could split the field and appeal to progressives and moderates and run right up the center of the Democratic Party,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. "Unfortunately, this ultimately led to her demise as a candidate because she alienated large swaths of both groups and exposed herself to criticism that she lacked a political core. This will be a cautionary tale going forward as others follow in her path.”

Indeed, even the high point of Harris' candidacy was marred by her uneven message.

She lurched into the top tier — albeit briefly — after a June debate performance in which she drew on a deeply personal experience as a young black girl to attack Biden's record on school busing. When pressed in the days that followed, however, it was revealed that her view of busing was not that different than Biden's.

“She makes him out to be some sort of crypto-racist in that debate, when, in interviews after the debate, she’s asked what her own stand was on busing, and it turns out it was almost identical to what Joe Biden stood for,” said veteran California Democratic strategist Garry South. “Voters came to the conclusion: ‘I don’t really know who this person is or what she stands for.’”

And with those unanswered questions following her across the nation, voters back home shied away.

Just 8% of likely California primary voters said they supported Harris, according to a November poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California. By comparison, 24% supported Biden, 23% Warren and 17% Sanders.

Some believe that her status as the only black woman in the race — an asset on paper for a party that celebrates diversity — was a liability in practice as Democrats searched for the candidate best positioned to defeat Trump next fall. Candidates of color and women historically struggle to attract campaign cash. And despite President Barack Obama’s pioneering election, they often have to work harder to convince voters they’re electable in a way that white candidates don’t.

Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, who endorsed Harris and previously chaired the Congressional Black Caucus, said she was hurt and disheartened by Harris’ exit.

“For her to be in a position where she can’t get the kind of support that she needed says an awful lot,” Fudge said.

As is often the case in struggling campaigns, infighting among her campaign began to spill out into the open as Harris' poll numbers sank. The low point came last week, when a senior aide resigned in a letter obtained by The New York Times that cited poor treatment of staff and lack of a coherent strategy.

Ultimately, California Democrats may have been least surprised by Harris' abrupt exit.

The state is far larger, more diverse politically and more disinterested in politics than national political observers often believe. At home, Harris was never expected to dominate her rivals in the state.

Harris' California colleague in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, endorsed Biden. And recent decades haven't been kind to those trying to use California as a launching pad to the White House. While Ronald Reagan was successful in 1980, former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown tried three times and failed.

At just 55 years old, Harris is far from finished in national politics.

Her allies note that her California connections are not insignificant. Through the third quarter, she raised more money from California donors than anyone else. She's also positioned to lean into Trump's looming impeachment trial in the Senate in a way she couldn't before. And, of course, she remains a top vice presidential prospect for the ultimate nominee.

“As painful as this moment is for Sen. Harris and her supporters,” Payne said, “it’s the best thing for her political future.”

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Peoples reported from New York, and Haines reported from Philadelphia.

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