Essential Politics: Why Kamala Harris will be hitting the campaign trail

Side-by-side images of Biden, Newsom and Harris.
President Biden, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Vice President Kamala Harris.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

When Vice President Kamala Harris canceled her rally for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s anti-recall campaign on Friday, the political world missed a preview of what is likely to be a busy year on the stump.

Harris’ advisors say she plans to hit the campaign trail frequently in 2022 on behalf of Democrats seeking to maintain their slim leads in the House and Senate.

Good morning and welcome to Essential Politics: the Kamala Harris edition. This week, I’ll discuss Harris’ expected role in the midterm elections and why her advisors believe that her poor poll numbers will not hamper her ability to raise money and generate enthusiasm on the campaign trail.


The Newsom factor

Harris had little choice but to cancel Friday’s rally for Newsom, shortly after learning that 13 American service members and scores of Afghans were slain in a terror attack in Kabul. Harris’ team has not indicated whether the event will be rescheduled before the Sept. 14 recall election date, but there is no doubt that the vice president thinks the recall is a big deal for a host of reasons.

First, Harris and Newsom share California connections and political bases (she represented the state in the U.S. Senate), San Francisco roots (she served as the city’s district attorney) and have overlapping political advisors. Second, Harris understands that a Newsom defeat in one of the nation’s most solidly Democratic states — and its most populous — would be a major psychological blow for her party.

Third, a Harris advisor told me that White House officials are concerned that if Newsom is recalled, a Republican governor will have the power to fill the seat of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the San Francisco Democrat who is 88, if she retires or falls ill.

Such a move would give Republicans a 51-49 majority in the Senate. Democrats only control the 50-50 body because Harris can cast tiebreaking votes.

Republican control would all but kill the Biden administration’s legislative agenda, imperil court nominations and make the Senate harder to win back.

It’s that kind of scenario that reminds Democrats they have very slim congressional majorities and adds more pressure on Harris to get out the vote in California and across the country in November 2022.

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A robust campaign schedule

Which brings us back to Harris. Her advisors have yet to plot an agenda for her in 2022 but promise a robust one. That’s because the House, where Democrats hold a 220-212 majority, also could flip to Republican control.

History is on the side of Republicans because the party of incumbent presidents has typically lost congressional seats in midterm elections.

Right now, Biden and Harris plan to run a version of the 2018 midterm elections, touting healthcare and the economy, while warning that Republican wins would imperil their agenda. The strategy could change, depending on national and world events and unique political factors that emerge in House and Senate races.

Much will depend on the president’s popularity. Biden’s has been dropping in recent polls, with about 47% of voters approving of his performance and just under 49% disapproving, according to the Real Clear Politics average.

I was in Pennsylvania last week talking to voters, and there is some evidence that the chaotic exit from Afghanistan may not be the driving factor in Biden’s declining popularity. My evidence is anecdotal, of course, and the conversations took place before the American service members were killed. But several voters told me they believed Biden was dealt a tough hand and that getting out of the two-decade war was important.

“He had a lot on his hands,” said Richard Zirpoli, 68, the owner of a tutoring business in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County who voted for former President Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. “The whole war has been a big catastrophe. I mean, we’ve been fighting the wrong battles.”

Some polling suggests Biden’s declining popularity may be driven by the resurgence in coronavirus cases, which could pose a bigger political problem for Biden and Harris. As my colleague David Lauter wrote last week, foreign affairs tend not to drive public opinion, even if they are tragedies.

The polling is even worse for Harris, who on average is viewed negatively by 49% of voters, compared with 43% who give her a positive rating, according to a Times analysis of polling data.

The hits on Harris’ numbers have come from a variety of places, some surprising. Only 36% of voters under the age of 30 approve of her, for example, compared with 49% who disapprove, according to YouGov. That’s a steady drop from earlier this year, when she won approval from a plurality of younger voters.

You can read more about what individual voters in Pennsylvania said about Harris, including people who told me on the record that they did not want a woman to be president, in the story I wrote.

A Harris advisor expressed full confidence in Harris’ ability to campaign for fellow Democrats.

The advisor pointed to Harris’ success in raising campaign cash and the number of requests she’d gotten from local candidates and parties. Data from the Democratic National Committee show she is second only to Biden in raising money through emails and social media, with the ability to connect with 73 million people on such platforms. She raised $2.3 million in her first three speeches for the DNC this year and was well received when she campaigned in January for a pair of pivotal Senate runoffs in Georgia that gave Democrats Senate control.

Former Vice President Mike Pence had similar polling numbers at this point in his tenure and was widely regarded as a valuable surrogate. He was often deployed to groups in his sweet spot, including evangelicals and business Republicans.

Harris may be deployed in a similar manner. But modern elections are based on turnout from core supporters. So there’s a case to be made that she can help get the vote out in highly contested states including Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and North Carolina.

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The latest on Afghanistan

In an address Tuesday, Biden described the evacuation from Afghanistan as an “extraordinary success” even though dozens of Americans and thousands of Afghan allies were left behind, Chris Megerian reports. Biden defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the conflict.

— From Nabih Bulos and Laura King: With the roar of a U.S. military cargo plane, the last U.S. troops departed the country at almost the stroke of midnight Monday, ending America’s longest war and leaving lasting but disparate wounds that cut across two nations.

Days after a suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. service members, Biden went to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to meet with the grieving families who lost sons and daughters in America’s longest war days before it was scheduled to end, writes Chris Megerian.

Editor’s note: Friday’s edition of the newsletter made reference to bombings in Afghanistan. Shortly after we sent it out, the Pentagon said it had determined there was just one suicide bomber and a single blast — not two explosions as it first reported.

The view from California

In his fight to keep his political life afloat, Newsom has staked his future on how well he can emulate a budget-slashing tea party darling: former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. He’s the only governor in American history to successfully beat back a recall, reports Melanie Mason.

Speaking of the recall: Drop off or in person? Madalyn Amato tells where to vote in the election.

— With the recall election less than two weeks away, the mail ballot returns so far show that more than twice as many Democrats have voted than Republicans and that liberal areas of the state such as the Bay Area have the highest rates of return, write Mason and Seema Mehta.

Democratic lawmakers have dropped a controversial proposal to mandate vaccines in the state, a move that would have been challenging to pass in the final weeks of the legislative session, report Melody Gutierrez and Taryn Luna.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting, including full coverage of the recall election and the latest action in Sacramento.

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