California

Kamala Harris aiming to pull off an Obama-sized feat in 2020

‘Our strength is our unity:’ Kamala Harris discusses issues after announcing run for presidency

Democratic Senator Kamala Harris announced her candidacy for president in 2020 on Jan. 21, 2019 at Howard University. She held a press conference at the university afterwards.
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Democratic Senator Kamala Harris announced her candidacy for president in 2020 on Jan. 21, 2019 at Howard University. She held a press conference at the university afterwards.

Kamala Harris was tapped as the “female Obama” before she’d even won statewide office. Now California’s junior senator is seeking to bring together a wide-ranging coalition of voters similar to the one President Barack Obama assembled in 2008 and 2012 to propel herself to the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

Harris announced Monday that she is running for president in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” timed to coincide with the holiday to honor the life of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. “The thing about Dr. King that always inspired me is that he was aspirational, like our country is aspirational,” said Harris, who promised to bring that spirit back to America.

The plans for her campaign roll-out over the next week make clear that the 54-year-old Democrat, who identifies as African American and Asian American, is taking particular aim at the African-American vote.

But Harris’ campaign team also believes that her experience in California politics and her immigrant roots — she is the daughter of an Indian immigrant mother and Jamaican immigrant father — will help her appeal to Asians, Latinos and other voters of color, as well as educated white liberals. Combined with her status as the first female attorney general in California and her outreach to young voters, they argue she has the broadest appeal of any of the multitude of Democrats in the race.

California, Harris noted at a Washington, D.C. press conference Monday afternoon, “is as diverse as our country. ... We have red areas, where have purple ares, we have blue areas.”

She also emphasized, however, that regardless of where they live, most Americans have the same priorities. “Be it a mom in Compton or a mom in Kentucky, she’s waking up having the same concerns about how she’s going to be able to raise those babies, how she’s going to be able to pay the rent at the end of the month, how she’s going to be able to retire with dignity,” Harris said.

The sheer size of likely primary field — more than a dozen Democrats are lining up to run — will make replicating Obama’s coalition challenging. National Democratic strategists emphasized that there will be significant competition for every constituency,

“When Barack Obama ran in 2008, it was a unique scenario: he was the only African American in the race. And in 2016, the Hillary Clinton coalition was unique, she was the only female,” said Antjuan Seawright, an unaligned South Carolina-based Democratic strategist. “This is different, with a record number of women running, a record number of African Americans. Now we have a Latino (Texan Julián Castro) in the race.”

But former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges said that Harris is well-positioned to connect with several of the core demographics that powered Obama’s campaign.

“If history is any indication, the African-American vote in the Democratic primary will be at least half, maybe more,” Hodges said. “The new voters coming into the Democratic primary this time will more likely be women than men,” given their antipathy to President Donald Trump. “Someone who appeals to both female voters and African-American voters is going to be in a pretty good position.”

Clearly, that’s part of Harris’ calculation.

She will formally launch her campaign with a rally in Oakland, Calif., her hometown and a city with a rich African-American history, on Sunday, Jan 27. In between, she will be appearing on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and at a gala for Alpha Kappa Alpha, a traditionally black sorority, in Columbia, S.C. — the first state with a large African-American population to vote in the Democratic primary.

Even Harris’ campaign logo nods to her African-American heritage. The color scheme, her campaign said, is inspired by campaign buttons for Shirley Chisholm, the groundbreaking politician who became the first black woman elected to Congress and the first to run for president, in 1972.

Symone Sanders, a Democratic strategist and veteran of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s insurgent 2016 presidential campaign, said Harris has a special opportunity to engage with not only black women, but also young voters of color. “She is in the unique position to speak candidly and authentically to that coalition,” said Sanders, which will make her “formidable” in a Democratic campaign.

Obama memorably mobilized thousands of young voters on his way to two terms in the White House. Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke would aim to do the same, if the social media-savvy 46-year-old ultimately decides to run. But Harris also has an imposing presence online, which is a key channel for engaging young voters. According to a study published by Axios on Saturday, Harris had the most interactions on Twitter of any 2020 Democratic hopeful over the last 30 days.

Harris has been conscientiously wooing Latino voters, which make up roughly 20 percent of the vote in California and are a growing force in national Democratic politics. Since joining the Senate in 2017, she has been been one of the most vocal lawmakers championing immigrant rights, particularly President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Also known as DACA, it allowed undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children to apply for legal status. President Trump has tried to end it.

Harris is also expected to be championed by a number of prominent Indian-American activists and donors, thrilled that a member of their community is seeking the nation’s highest office. But, as with every constituency, there is notable competition for the Indian-American vote as well this cycle: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu in Congress, has also made overtures to the community.

Harris has more ground to make up with one key 2020 demographic: rural, white voters, who are a force in early primary states like New Hampshire and Iowa. The latter was where Obama kick-started his 2008 primary victory.

Sam Roecker, an Iowa-based Democratic strategist, said Harris hasn’t been as visible there recently as other 2020 hopefuls have been, though she campaigned in the state during the midterms and was well-received.

Harris and her aides insist she plans to compete everywhere during the primary race. “It is my full intention to travel this country and sit in living rooms and listen to families and let them express their concerns and their needs,” Harris told reporters. “It is about representing all of the people in the country.”

If she hopes to recreate Obama’s Iowa success, Roecker said Harris will need to move quickly. “He put together a really strong staff early on, a large staff, where you had people focus on building those constituency groups, doing that grassroots organizing,” he said.

With 379 days to go until the 2020 Iowa caucuses, Roecker added, “There’s still time to do this.”

Update: This story was updated to include remarks from Harris’ Washington, D.C. press conference.

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Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.
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