Kamala Harris embarks on midterm campaign swing to boost turnout -- and her own brand
By Edward-Isaac Dovere
(CNN) -- Kamala Harris is embarking on a targeted burst of midterm campaigning -- especially rooted around abortion rights -- in an effort to raise her profile after a rocky start as vice president and boost turnout among key segments of the coalition Democrats desperately need for the midterms.
She'll be zeroing in on Black, women and younger voters, while keeping up what has been a deliberate outreach to unions, among both leadership and rank-and-file, according to a dozen aides to Harris and others in the White House and beyond familiar with her plans.
"The positioning is not so much about the geography," said one aide, "but about the demography."
The central and uniting theme of her fall will be abortion, an issue that's already proven to be an animating force for Democratic base voters. Harris was initially reluctant to be the face of the administration's efforts to champion abortion rights, recoiling from the assumption that she had to be, simply because she is the highest-profile woman in Democratic politics, according to people who've spoken with her. But now she's planning to focus on it as she tries to make the case for Democrats defending their narrow congressional majorities, even as many candidates keep their distance from her.
Harris' first year as vice president was defined largely by stories of staff infighting, being sidelined and resulting frustration, as CNN has previously reported. But even people close to Harris and within the West Wing who used to insist publicly there weren't problems with her work and her public presence now speak regularly about how much Harris has improved, and express optimism that she might start to actually make an impression in voters' minds and pull up poll numbers that are worse than President Joe Biden's.
With White House aides privately acknowledging that Biden is not the perfect fit for talking about abortion rights, they've been glad to have Harris as the point person for advocates and officials alike. In a speech on Saturday to a meeting of Democratic National Committee members just outside Washington, DC, she laid out why holding onto their razor-thin majority in the Senate would matter for Democrats -- and for her.
"I cannot wait," she said, "to cast the deciding vote to break the filibuster on voting rights and reproductive rights."
To many Democratic operatives and officials watching, Harris' midterm activity is part of a longer arc of preparation for the bigger campaign ahead in 2024. By the spring, Harris will either be a necessarily much higher profile than normal running mate for an already aging president running for reelection -- or if the situation changes, suddenly in a short fuse primary campaign to be the replacement nominee herself.
"The next eight months are Rocky punching the beef, running up the stairs," said one top Democrat who's spoken to Harris recently.
Getting outside of Washington
The rescue effort for the recalcitrant vice president began last winter, as her chief of staff, communications director and press secretary were all replaced. Internal and external advisers assured her that her treatment in the media was unfair. The racism and sexism the first female and the first Black vice president felt was absolutely real, they told her.
But the defensive burrowing in that she had been doing, they warned, was only going to make the situation worse. And it was leaving her more prone to out-of-practice fumbles, like when she laughed at a question last summer about why she hadn't visited the southern border by saying she also hadn't been to Europe.
She kept saying she wanted to get out more, but she needed to actually start getting out more, advisers told the vice president, and build up her confidence and comfort in public in owning her presence on the job.
"All of her assignments before were not as clear cut. If you look at [migration issues related to diplomacy at the] Northern Triangle, look at voting rights, there was no clear way to measure success," said Cedric Richmond, the former congressman and White House adviser who's taken on a prime role counseling Harris.
"I just reminded her that she and the President are both the biggest assets that we have," Richmond said, "and that people need to see her to understand all what she's been doing and to really hear her."
Among the stops already planned are additional trips to Texas and Pennsylvania, and a roundtable scheduled for Friday in Chicago with state legislators, students, abortion providers and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who is running against a Trump-endorsed Republican who supports stringent abortion restrictions. Aides expect Harris to be on the road up to three days each week in a mix of events that will include more fundraisers, but most events will be like one CNN has learned she has scheduled for September 22 in Milwaukee at a meeting of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, in a critical swing state, where she'll highlight the legal fight for abortion rights.
With Biden's poll numbers cratering in the spring as even core Democrats grew disaffected, White House chief of staff Ron Klain -- who served as a chief of staff to two vice presidents -- urged Harris' aides, and her directly, to think about capitalizing on where her appeal was strongest. Black voters were giving up on Democrats and drifting away. Before the Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade, female voters were too. Younger voters who, for the most part, were never deeply committed to Biden had returned to being blasé at best.
They're using the model of Harris' appearance at the Essence Festival in New Orleans over July Fourth weekend. There's not a competitive race in the fall anywhere near Louisiana. But there was an audience of 10,000 primarily Black women gathered from across the country to whom she spoke about the "outrageous" Dobbs decision, not very subtly linked the Supreme Court ruling to "a history in this country of government trying to claim ownership over human bodies."
She brings her own approach to the issue. In internal conversations at the White House, for example, she's made the point that they shouldn't assume Black voters are going to automatically agree with them on championing abortion rights.
After her speech at the DNC on Saturday, Harris made a surprise stop in the same hotel to speak to a gathering of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the sorority of Black women to which she belonged at Howard, and urged the women in the room to think of the midterm campaign as service.
"So many women, especially younger women whom we absolutely need, connect to her in a way that they don't connect with any other leader in the Democratic Party right now who's front and center," said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who has advised Harris and her staff.
That targeted focus will also define Harris' approach to media interviews. Though she pre-recorded a rare Sunday show appearance with NBC's "Meet the Press" last weekend, her aides are catering to women's magazines, Black and Latino television and radio, and a Labor Day-themed, union-focused interview with the left-leaning magazine The Nation. (She declined an interview request from CNN.)
"If you're going to put together a winning coalition nationally, I would argue it's more important to be on stage at the Essence Festival than it is to be at the rural county fair," Belcher said.
So far Harris' recalibration isn't a total revolution. Some of the issues that plagued her start as vice president -- inconsistency, endless meetings and prep sessions -- remain. Complaints come in from inside and outside the government about hesitation and lack of follow through. "Overthinking" is still a word people who talk with her often use, and caution and anxiety can wrench her words into garbles, such as in the "Meet the Press" interview when she gave a meandering dodge to a question about whether she'd support prosecuting former President Donald Trump.
Though dynamics internally at the White House have improved, Harris and her aides still worry about inadvertently outshining Biden, while trying to carve out her own identity.
Her role, one top Biden adviser said -- acknowledging playing off Harris' original 2020 "prosecutor for president" pitch -- is now making the case for Biden.
"For many of the people we're talking to, it's the same people we needed to turn out for us in 2020," another person familiar with Harris' thinking said. "She feels a sense of responsibility to make them understand what we have delivered on, and to ask them to do it again."
And when making that sell, she likes to get specific, her aides say. She'll cross out "American Rescue Plan" or "ARP," for example, if she sees them written in her speeches, and say things like, "Don't tell me, 'We're spending money on bridges.' Pick a bridge!"
Focusing on abortion
Harris was flying to Chicago when the Dobbs decision came down in late June, but she tore through the majority opinion, dissent and concurrences as Air Force 2 landed, and then in the motorcade to a long-scheduled event that happened to be on maternal health, she scratched notes in the margins.
Harris very quickly started talking about the decision as an assault not on reproductive rights but on "freedom and liberty." She stressed the importance of talking about the impact on IVF and miscarriages, and the potential future legal action against same-sex marriage.
In talking with clergy and other faith leaders, she's urged them to see abortion rights not as a threat to their personal opposition to the procedure, but instead about the government not making decisions for women. She also pressed aides to make sure she isn't just talking to older faith leaders.
New aides have built a quiet yet consistent structure of events for her, unlike during her first year on the job. Hosting abortion rights roundtables with local legislators around the country in both red and blue states, Harris has raised their profile with the spotlight a vice presidential visit brings, while offering practical tips like whom to call at the Justice Department taskforce or which legislator in another state might be worth connecting with.
Harris has led internal White House meetings too, with aides saying her experiences as a state attorney general has proven crucial both as they've weighed policy moves and in urging everyone involved to use more practical and direct language.
"It helps the President to have her playing a leadership role," said top Biden adviser Anita Dunn, who's been part of several one-on-one and group conversations with Harris.
And it's clearly helped Harris too, many around her say.
"She's found her groove," said Donna Brazile, a former DNC chair and informal adviser, marveling at how an issue uniting Harris' legal background and longtime attention to maternal health and equality happened to land right when she needed it.
"She has really been able to help the White House communicate its message on choice, on freedom and on equality -- and that matters in a close election."
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