With an unsettled field, betting on the victor of the Democratic 2020 presidential primary right now is risky business. In January 2015, Jeb Bush was atop the Republican pack, and Donald Trump was five months away from disrupting everything.
At 54, Harris is two decades younger than some of her septuagenarian competitors – an age that enables her to appeal to the Instagram crowd without being painted as inexperienced. A child of immigrants, she brings diversity to a party obsessed with racial and gender politics.
Harris has been in the Senate only two years – not long enough to amass a voting record on thorny issues or carry the stench of Washington. She has used her perch on the Senate Judiciary Committee to filet Trump nominees and earn plaudits from liberals.
Harris represents California, whose nearly 40 million citizens account for 12 percent of the entire country’s population. Typically an afterthought in the voting process with its June primary, the Golden State moved its date up to March 3. The leap-frogging means it will play an outsized role in the nomination, and its hometown representatives stand to benefit.
Now let’s consider her challenges. Harris’s home state advantage is no guarantee. Delegates will be assigned by congressional district, of which there are 53 across California’s 11 media markets. Opportunistic candidates can pick off wins by blanketing targeted areas of the state with resources.
Running as a liberal in a deep blue state, Harris has never been through the wringer of a national political campaign. She faced no Republican opposition in her only Senate run, trouncing the nearest Democrat by the largest margin of any non-incumbent senator in 100 years. Candidates get better with practice, and Harris’ inexperience on the national scene could cause some bumps along the road.
Harris’ tenure on the Judiciary Committee has not been without controversy. Even The Washington Post awarded her the dubious “four Pinnochios” award for misleading attacks against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. More recently, she faced allegations of anti-Catholic bigotry for denigrating the Knights of Columbus. It is a sad reality that in 2019 principled Catholics face hostility in the Democratic Party once led by John F. Kennedy.
More than anything else, Harris’s greatest vulnerabilities lie in her professional background. Presidential candidates must put forward their entire resumes to be picked apart by the media and opposition researchers, who frame it for consumption by the general public.
Harris’s roots are in law enforcement, first as district attorney for San Francisco and then attorney general of California – the state’s top cop. Carrying the banner of law enforcement for Democrats is akin to entering a Republican primary with a resume advocating tax hikes. Both positions fly in the face of party orthodoxy, particularly among activists who decide primaries.
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton struggled to explain her support of the 1994 crime bill, which was one component of her husband President Bill Clinton’s commitment to law and order. Twenty years later, it was a headache in a party deeply skeptical of law enforcement.
For Harris, every case she was a part of as a prosecutor is about to be scrutinized. It will be Whac-A-Mole – every time a controversy erupts and is put out, another one will arise. Already, her role in a top aide’s resignation amid sexual harassment allegations and a $400,000 payout for the accuser has raised eyebrows.
Harris will be forced to explain past positions that are anathema to liberals, such as defending the death penalty, laughing at the idea of marijuana legalization, and threatening parents with jail time for truancy. In politics, when you’re explaining, you’re losing.
If Harris over-compensates by running far to the left, she will open herself up to charges of being soft on crime – a reputation that has sunk Democratic candidates of yesteryear in general elections (looking at you, Michael Dukakis).
Even in a field crowded with higher-profile names, it would be a mistake to underestimate Kamala Harris’ political upside. Time will tell if she is able to capitalize on it. For my money, she starts the primary race as the (very early) favorite.