Kamala Harris running as VP sends Trump back to his favorite pastime — bashing California
Early Wednesday, the morning after Joe Biden asked Kamala Harris to run as his vice president, Republicans blasted her as “A California Progressive Radical.”
Hours later, the Trump campaign slammed the first-term U.S. senator from the nation’s most populous state as “a California Radical who Completes the Left-Wing Takeover of Joe Biden.”
For President Trump and his followers, the fiery rhetoric has become almost reflexive, part of a larger political war against the Democratic-led state that includes pitched legal battles over environmental regulations, immigration policies, healthcare programs and access to voting.
The initial Republican attempts to hit Harris have been contradictory, on one hand labeling her a “phony” who lacks conviction, and on the other a tool of “radicals on the left,” suggesting she is a zealous ideologue.’’
Attacking California, which has served as a conservative boogieman for decades, blurs some of those complications, conjuring images for some voters that Trump has drawn of cities overrun with crime, homeless people and immigrants.
Trump has said that San Francisco, where Harris began her political career, is “going to hell” and quoted media allies who called it an “American dystopia.”
Democrats and other critics say the appeals are at least in part meant to further Trump’s demonizing of minorities — given that Latinos make up a plurality of the state’s population — something Trump’s supporters deny.
Harris is not only the first Black woman to run for the White House on a major party ticket. She is the first Democrat from California, or indeed west of the Rockies, to do so.
Although Harris is known to Californians, she is relatively unknown on the national stage. She earned Democratic plaudits for her prosecutorial grilling of Trump aides and nominees in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, but she quit the presidential race last year before the first primary after failing to gain enough support.
Republicans are wasting no time in trying to define the Oakland-born Democrat in negative terms, including her years as district attorney in San Francisco, and then as California’s attorney general before she was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016.
“Harris subscribes to a checklist of super-radical positions that might play in the Bay Area, but won’t play in swing counties in the Midwest,” said Steve Cortes, a senior advisor for strategy for the Trump campaign. “She embraces a radical worldview of extreme leftist policies like massive tax hikes, gun confiscation, and decriminalizing illegal border crossings.”
Biden’s backers say voters won’t be fooled by those harsh attacks and mischaracterizations of her record. They argue that Americans are focused on the pandemic, the faltering economy and the issues of racial injustice raised by the George Floyd killing during an arrest in Minneapolis in May.
“People are hungry. People are scared. People are worried about their jobs,” said Barbara Boxer, who held Harris’ Senate seat for 24 years before retiring in 2017. “If the message from the Republicans is ‘reject Biden and Harris because she’s from California,’ I think that’s the most absurd thing they could do.”
Until Harris got the nod, the White House had largely tamped down its anti-California jibes during the coronavirus pandemic. A brief cease-fire of sorts even appeared.
In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has frequently clashed with Trump, publicly praised the president for getting a Navy hospital ship to Los Angeles and sending medical supplies that the state needed to fight the contagion.
“Gavin Newsom was very nice today,” Trump responded in a White House briefing. “They’ve done very well in California.” His reelection campaign later featured Newsom’s comments in an ad.
But Trump continued to claim falsely that California is sending ballots to “people who aren’t citizens, illegals” and “anybody who is walking or breathing” in an attempt to steal the November election.
Democrats argue that Trump’s targeting of the state is rooted in resentment that California thrived economically despite overwhelmingly rejecting Trump and his policies. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton defeated Trump by 30 percentage points in 2016, and Biden is leading polls by similar margins.
“It just happens that California is the most diverse state in the nation, and it sure undermines his framing that we need to go back to the old ways,” said state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, whose office says it has filed at least 95 lawsuits against the Trump administration since 2017.
Becerra argues that California’s pre-pandemic economy proves its progressive policies work. Republicans say tight regulations have hampered growth and exacerbated the large economic gap between rich and poor that has fueled the homeless crisis.
Mike Madrid, a longtime GOP strategist in California who is helping lead the Lincoln Project, a Republican group working to defeat Trump, says Californians may have a myopic view of their own importance.
“In California, we think everybody wants to be like us,” Madrid said. “The fact of the matter is most states don’t, especially not Rust Belt states. They like their state the way it is. They are like, ‘just bring the damn jobs back and leave us alone.’”
Madrid said Trump is using the same language that anti-immigrant activists used effectively in California in the 1990s to stoke fear and resentment in their campaign for Proposition 187, which severely restricted the rights of immigrants.
“He is stoking fears of people being replaced and America being taken over,” Madrid said.
The measure passed, but backlash and demographic changes cemented Democrats’ hold on the state ever since.
Madrid believes Trump’s appeals will work “with a certain type of Republican they need to get,” especially voters who see jobs traditionally held by working-class whites shifting to nonwhite newcomers, and those who believe Trump’s disproved claims that urban violence is tied to immigration.
But Madrid said the audience for California-bashing is narrowing to a smaller and smaller slice of the country, as Republican strongholds in the Sun Belt become more diverse.
“Texas is becoming more like California every year,” Madrid said. “People who want California but just can’t afford it are moving to Austin, Houston, San Antonio.”
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