Harris focuses on boosting female candidates in final days of midterm push

Andrea Campbell first met Kamala Harris when the then-California attorney general gave the address at her 2009 UCLA Law school commencement.

More than a decade later, Campbell watched as Vice President Harris rallied a gymnasium full of Democrats to support her in her bid to become the first Black female attorney general of Massachusetts.

“If you’re going to be successful as a woman candidate, especially women of color, you need mentorship,” Campbell told CNN, adding that the vice president told her backstage: “Be yourself. Remind folks why you do this work. Speak to your story and remind folks why government matters.”

That full circle moment came as Harris makes her final round of stops in the last stretch of days before the final ballots of the midterm elections are counted. Harris, who has had a laser focus on abortion and women’s rights issues while in office, is spending those last few days stumping for almost all women candidates in Democratic stronghold states, going to friendly territory to serve as a closer in tighter-than-expected races.

Harris’ last-minute travel emphasizes the high political stakes for Democrats in a midterm election that has largely focused on the question of whether President Joe Biden’s party will be able to keep control of Congress — and if not, how much it might be able to minimize its losses. A source close to Harris says it’s also reflective of a year-long strategy to put her in front of audiences where she could build important relationships for the future.

“Over the next four days, Vice President Harris will continue to do what she has been doing and that’s uplifting candidates up and down the ballot who are as equally committed to protecting reproductive rights and are committed to building on the progress the administration has been to bring the economy back,” a White House official said.

The vice president is expected to spend Monday in California, appearing with the state Democratic party for a rally on reproductive rights, according to a White House official. Los Angeles mayoral candidate Karen Bass is also expected to attend, according to a California official. On Sunday, Harris will appear with Sen. Tammy Duckworth in Illinois for an Asian American and Pacific Islanders Victory Fund event — in addition to rallying for Illinois Gov. J.B Pritzker, a day after Biden appears in the same state.

That comes after back-to-back trips to boost female candidates. Harris spent Thursday in New York stumping for Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is in a tighter-than-expected reelection race, and Attorney General Letitia James alongside former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in a high-profile rally.

Boosting women and playing defense

Female gubernatorial nominees are breaking records in this year’s midterm elections, with 25 women receiving nominations by the two major parties, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. And a record number are also running for state legislatures.

Referencing that record breaking, Harris told the crowd in New York, “You’ve witnessed a lot of history on this stage. A whole lot of firsts”

“Yes, we may be the first, but we are committed to not being the last. And we’re going to count on you to help us see that through,” Harris added, using a line her mother often repeated to Harris throughout her career.

A day before, the vice president went to the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts to stump for Campbell and Maura Healey, who is running for governor. The vice president has also campaigned for Sen. Patty Murray in Washington, Rep. Jahana Hayes in Connecticut and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan among other women candidates.

But the places Harris hasn’t been during this midterm cycle, and the frontline Democratic women candidates locked in tight races she hasn’t stumped for, is notable. She has not campaigned in-person for Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto, New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, Arizona gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, North Carolina US Senate candidate Cheri Beasley, California US Rep. Katie Porter or Florida Rep. Val Demings, who is running for Senate against Sen. Marco Rubio.

In many cases, campaigns must invite White House officials to appear at their events — and bringing the president or vice president can be costly as the campaign picks up the bill. Some campaign operatives previously told CNN that the increased scrutiny from Republicans that follows the first Black female vice president has hindered their willingness to bring her out.

But Harris’ absences, along with Biden’s own relatively light campaign schedule that who also hasn’t brought him to many tight races across the country, illustrate a political reality: Some endangered Democrats have sought to distance themselves from the White House.

Many skipped the chance to invite either Biden or Harris make an appearance as they walk a tightrope on the economy and inflation. Biden and Harris’ frequent trips to states they easily won in 2020 also illustrates just how much Democrats are on the defense in races that are traditionally deep blue.

Harris did visit Nevada, Wisconsin and California for official events — abortion rights roundtables– in the last three months, emphasizing her focus on an issue that became front of mind for some Democratic voters after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer. And she has done virtual events for North Carolina congressional candidates, Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, Iowa gubernatorial candidate Deidre DeJear and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo in Texas.

Harris has also headlined more than a dozen DNC fundraising events so far this year, raising millions, an DNC official told CNN. Her allies argue that the strategy to stay far from tough races and instead spend time in deeply blue states shows the White House is not taking anything for granted.

“I think it’s a very smart strategy,” said A’shanti Gholar, president of the organization Emerge, which recruits and then trains Democratic women to run for office. The founder of Emerge helped Harris in her first race for San Francisco district attorney.

“It’s showing the voters that they matter, that their state matters, that their city matters. It’s a very holistic approach. We don’t always have to send our key principles to play defense. They can play offense too.”

Closing argument

Harris has centered her closing message on urging Americans to vote Democrats into office as the final stand against Republicans trying to pass restrictive abortion and voting rights bills. The former California attorney general has stressed that voters must focus on down-ballot races that could determine who controls election systems and statehouses.

“We’re going to need people in the statehouse and at a local level who have the courage to stand up and push back against what is happening in our country. And then that way, who is your governor matters. Who is your attorney general matters. Who is your lieutenant governor matters. Because they will be the last line of defense with what we’re seeing happening around our country,” Harris told the crowd in New York, citing Republican threats of a national abortion ban.

The vice president’s argument runs complimentary to Biden’s closing message warning Americans that democracy itself is on a precipice, with a possibility of teetering over should election deniers win important races. Biden, his advisers and Harris have all tried to reframe the midterm elections as a choice between the two parties instead of it as a referendum on the Biden administration.

Those close to Harris argue that her months-long work on abortion has been her greatest asset on the trail, providing her credibility with voters who wonder what their government has done to protect women’s rights. The vice president has held nearly 40 events in Washington and across the country on the issue, cementing herself as the administration’s lead messenger on the issue. That effort comes as the Biden administration has unilaterally deployed small measures to try to safeguard abortion access.

“She started having a conversation about freedom, liberty and claiming abortion as an elected leader very early,” the source close to Harris added about the strategy, as she met with state legislatures, college presidents, labor leaders, religious leaders, students, women’s magazines, community leaders and others.

“So, she was very intentional about talking to people who were going to be speaking to other people about these issues, people who are kind of conduits to congregations or communities.”

Harris’ office says her midterm focus has been on women, young people and people of color.

“She’s been very effective at using the vice president’s bully pulpit to help lift up state and local candidates,” Minyon Moore, a veteran Democratic strategist and an outside adviser to Harris, told CNN. “Whether it’s the last four days she’s campaigning for women, or whether it has been the last couple of months she’s been out here, crisscrossing the country. The fact is, whenever you bring a president or a vice president in there is no one better to communicate how the policies they passed impact the American people”

Laphonza Butler, a former senior adviser on Harris’ presidential campaign who now is the president of Emily’s List, joked that Harris’ role this midterm is “dot-connector-in-chief.”

“The subtext is always the economy whether you’re talking about abortion or labor or the environment. It all fundamentally comes back to are people going to be able to afford to live a decent life. I think that is the point [Harris] makes better than better than most,” Butler said.

And the constituencies that Harris has intentionally rallied, from women to people of color to labor and state legislatures, are the very same she tapped into after joining the Biden’s presidential ticket in 2020.

Those close to her argue that those are the very same group she’ll need again should she run again as Biden’s no. 2 or if the soon-to-be 80-year-old president doesn’t seek a second term, thrusting his vice president’s 2024 plans into the spotlight.

“Women were key for them in 2020,” Butler said. “In a cycle where we have so much at stake for women like reproductive health care, it surely is of benefit no matter what 2024 looks like.”

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