Kamala Harris shutters campaign. Does she have a shot at VP?

Francine Kiefer

On Monday evening, Kamala Harris’ Des Moines headquarters was humming with activity. Millennials sat with laptops at folding tables, twinkly Christmas lights above their heads. Purple and yellow “For the People” signs spelled out “Iowa” in a giant floor-to-ceiling display. 

The campaign was hitting all of its outreach targets to finish in the top three in the Iowa caucuses, Senator Harris’ state communications director said over breakfast with a reporter Tuesday morning, promising to follow up about a candidate meet-and-greet in Decorah.

Not long after, she texted: “The office is closed. Sorry.”

The suspension of the California senator’s presidential bid shocked her supporters here and around the country. Yes, her poll numbers had plummeted, and recent media reports had portrayed a poorly run campaign plagued with internal divisions. But she had performed well in the last debate, and was “all in” in Iowa, packing the house at a recent event in Indianola.

“Her momentum was changing,” says Janelle Rettig, the Johnson County supervisor who just endorsed Ms. Harris on Sunday. 

In a letter to staff and supporters on Tuesday, Ms. Harris explained that her campaign simply did not have the finances to continue. “I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign,” she wrote, in a subtle dig to ultrawealthy late entrants Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer.

But a lack of funding is a symptom, not a cause, and political analysts all point to one cause to explain her campaign’s demise: the lack of a consistent, core message.

“Senator Harris never really had a rationale for her campaign,” says Phil Trounstine, co-editor and publisher of Calbuzz. “She had positions, but she never really had convictions. And people saw that, which is why she never caught on.”

She bowed out in time to remove her name from the California ballot, saving herself from an embarrassing showing and perhaps making her a more viable vice presidential pick, says Mr. Trounstine. But “Kamala was an inherently weak candidate, because she’s a show horse” – albeit “a good one.”

Senator Harris launched her campaign with a bang, drawing an enthusiastic crowd of more than 20,000 people at her January kickoff in Oakland. The former California prosecutor and attorney general had achieved rock-star status after her sharp questioning at last year’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. A gifted, personable speaker and personification of the American immigrant dream – her mother was from India and her father from Jamaica – she generated positive reviews from voters and the media.

“The campaign coverage was absolutely glowing, until it wasn’t,” says a former Harris staffer. As reporters and voters kicked the tires, many found them deflated. “She has never been tremendously strong on policy, once you get down into the details.”

The senator changed positions on “Medicare for All,” one of the most controversial issues in the campaign. At the June debate, she got a boost after zinging front-runner Joe Biden over school busing, but then adjusted her position on that as well. For a time, she seemed to be running in the progressive lane, then moved more to the moderate lane.

“I don’t think she ever developed a coherent message. You could see that in the tag lines that kept changing. I think the last one was ‘Justice for All,’ ” says former Democratic consultant Robert Shrum, who now teaches at the University of Southern California. Telling voters that she can “prosecute” Donald Trump is “not a sufficient message in this primary.”

Senator Harris is not the first upper-tier candidate to drop out. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who almost defeated Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, also entered the presidential race with high expectations, only to exit before the voting began.

Like Ms. Harris, “he had a problem defining himself,” says Dianne Bystrom, the former director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames. Mr. O’Rourke wound up focusing on gun control after this summer’s shooting in El Paso, but it wasn’t enough. He dropped out Nov. 1 for lack of funding.

Dr. Bystrom, who heard Senator Harris speak in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a few weeks ago, says her message of pay equity for women and teachers was strong but failed to resonate. That, combined with poor polling, and the spate of negative media coverage about internal campaign troubles, sunk her. “People don’t want to give money to people they think are not viable.”

An hour flipping through TV channels in Des Moines on a recent weeknight reveals ads for Mr. Steyer and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (who has shot to first place in recent polls there) – as well as for former New York Mayor Bloomberg, despite the fact that he’s not even competing in the early states. 

The big spenders in the race rankle some Harris supporters. Jane Gasperi, a retired Des Moines real estate agent, had planned to host a house party for Senator Harris on Monday evening, but says she had to cancel because of difficulties in getting people to respond to an unrecognized number.

When a reporter rings her doorbell on Tuesday to ask her about Ms. Harris dropping out, Ms. Gasperi’s hands fly to her mouth and her eyes brim with tears. Her television was off and she had not yet heard. “No! She’s so qualified! And then there’s Bloomberg out there with all of his money,” she says. “I’m just so sad that it all came down to money.”

At a coffee shop in Iowa City, Ms. Rettig, the county supervisor, explains how she and her wife read all of the candidates’ books and interviewed them before endorsing Ms. Harris. She sees her as smart, tough as nails, and “maybe the best listener I’ve seen run for president.”

They, too, frown on the billionaire money pouring into their state – though they think it may backfire. “Iowa doesn’t typically let you buy elections,” says Ms. Rettig. “Here, you have to work for it.”

Attention is already turning to what’s next for Senator Harris – and her supporters. Mr. Shrum describes her as a “serious possibility” for the vice presidential nominee. If former Vice President Biden, who is leading in the national polls, or Mr. Buttigieg win the nomination, there will be pressure on them to select a woman, particularly a minority woman, to add diversity and boost turnout, he says.

Ms. Harris’ messaging inconsistencies wouldn’t matter in that role, because the message is set by the presidential campaign. And her prosecutorial experience could be a huge plus, since often it’s the vice presidential candidate who gets tapped to go on the attack.

In coming weeks, Americans may get to see her flex her prosecutorial muscles again when, presumably, the Senate – and the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she sits – take up articles of impeachment from the House.

Vice President Biden already appears to have glossed over their debate sparring over busing. From his “No Malarky” bus tour in Iowa on Wednesday, he said the contest lost “a really good one” in Senator Harris, saying she is “capable of being president or vice president or on the Supreme Court or attorney general.”

As for her followers, at least one of them, Tracy Van Houten, a Democratic party activist in Los Angeles County, says she will support Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “I will go for Warren, because I will 100% be voting for a woman in the primary.”

Scrolling through her social media feeds after the “heartbreaking” news on Tuesday, Ms. Van Houten says many of the senator’s backers seem to be flocking either to Senator Warren or to Julian Castro of Texas. Many Democratic voters are dismayed that, so far, the next Democratic presidential debate features a lineup of all white people, mostly men.

In Iowa, Ms. Gasperi, the retired real estate agent, is still too shocked to consider which other candidate she might back. But she knows that it won’t be Mr. Biden or Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom she describes as “the old” Democratic Party.

“I heard the other week, that 7 out of 10 of us are supporting someone now who is not going to be the candidate, and we have to be prepared for that. I heard that, and I was like, ‘Oh, I agree! But I’m not one of those. My candidate is going to be on the ticket.’”

And perhaps she will be. Just not as president. At least not this time.

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