In the real world, Kamala Harris’ campaign for the U.S. Senate began just two weeks ago, days after Barbara Boxer’s Jan. 8 announcement that she would retire in 2016. In the political world, her preparations for the race have been apparent for a long time.
Last fall, for example. The Democratic attorney general spent close to $1.5 million in the first 18 days of October — the last calculations available — and most of it went to the airwaves.
That level of spending certainly was not necessary for Harris to eke out a victory over Ronald Gold, a Republican who spent less than $17,000 over the same period. Don’t remember Ronald Gold? Voters didn’t, either. Harris won by 15 percentage points.
That money was spent to craft an image for Harris for a campaign that her strategists could not yet see but knew was coming, like a train whistling closer but still around the bend. Boxer and her Senate colleague Dianne Feinstein, both elected in 1992, were seen as potential retirees in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Jerry Brown was running for his last term as governor, offering an opening there in 2018.
The message in Harris’ television ads provides something of a road map for what we might see in the upcoming Senate race. The contours of the contest are not fully known — former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa may yet jump in, and Harris is untested in a big race — but the basic argument forwarded by her will probably not change.
Her messaging also suggests that the image crafted for female candidates now, two decades removed from the Year of the Woman in which Boxer and Feinstein won their seats, is not terribly different from how images were crafted then. It’s also not terribly different from the way that men frame their images, apart from a more overt emphasis on toughness.
Harris’ ads show her from two perspectives. One starts in a courtroom.
“As attorney general, Harris aggressively prosecuted creditors who victimized the vulnerable,” a male narrator intones. “Harris cracked down on sexual trafficking of women and children into California, took on the transnational gangs, prosecuted sexual assaults and enforced laws requiring equal pay for equal work.”
As short-and-sweet biography goes, that covers a lot of bases, many of them affecting women, the majority of the state’s voters and a huge majority of the state’s Democratic voters. It exudes toughness —wouldn’t you have to be to take on transnational gangs? — but ends on a human note, Harris walking away from the audience down a courtroom hallway, holding the hand of a child. Presumably, a child who needs her protection.
A second ad flipped the toughness-and-humanity visuals, showing Harris seated at a table with young kids but speaking firmly.
“As prosecutors we always start with the chain of evidence,” she says. “The evidence is clear. If you are chronically truant from elementary school, you are four times more likely to drop out and to become a perpetrator or a victim of crime. That’s why we’re taking on the truancy crisis in the California Department of Justice. By stopping crime before it starts, we can save billions and we can save lives.”
Note that Harris doesn’t say “by stopping truancy” but “by stopping crime” — an emphasis that historically has been more in the Republican wheelhouse. But the human element is there too, in the high-fives she exchanges with the kids, everyone smiling.
It echoes, less dramatically, the ad that put women on the map politically in California, the ad that lofted Feinstein from being almost unknown outside her home base of San Francisco to winning the Democratic nomination for governor in 1990. She lost that campaign, but the image she defined eased her way to a Senate victory two years later, much as Harris clearly hopes her attorney general ads will boost her campaign for a seat in Washington.
Feinstein’s ad opened with video footage of the awful moments in 1978 when Feinstein had to announce to San Francisco that Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been assassinated. Feinstein had become, in that moment, the city’s ranking political authority.
“Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot … and killed,” Feinstein says. Around her, San Franciscans stood, some stunned, some groaning, one woman screaming. Feinstein herself is calm.
If the first moments, and the words “forged from tragedy,” wielded a punch, so did the tagline, which Feinstein strategist Bill Carrick said at the time was the candidate’s description of herself: “Tough and caring.”
In some ways, any Democrat running today may have it easier. Feinstein, in her early campaigns, faced fierce Democratic primaries and tough Republican opposition. The state is now far more Democratic in its voting habits, with far more female and minority voters. (Harris, whose mother is Indian and father Jamaican, checks both boxes.) It’s hard to conjure a powerful Republican opponent for Harris; her toughest competition would look to be fellow Democrat Villaraigosa.
Though he entered office dancing with optimism, Villaraigosa had the bad luck to serve as mayor during tough economic times, never a source of goodwill for politicians. But if he does run, Villaraigosa can be expected to adopt some version of the theme of his winning campaign ads, his version of tough and caring.
“Hands-on leadership, straight from the heart,” the ads declared.
On Twitter: @cathleendecker