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Covering Kamala Harris Covering Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris campaigns with Gretchen Whitmer in potential 2028 preview

Two women smile.
Vice President Kamala Harris campaigns with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Detroit on Saturday.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Vice President Kamala Harris smiled, laughed and showered her fellow Democrats with compliments as she campaigned in Detroit on Saturday with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who remains a favorite for reelection even as her race with Republican Tudor Dixon appears to tighten.

But politicos watching Harris’ and Whitmer’s appearance together were interested in more than the governor’s chances in next month’s midterm elections. The vice president and the governor, now allies, are seen as possible future rivals and could well face each other in a presidential primary in 2024 or 2028, depending on whether President Biden seeks another term, as he has promised.

At a Michigan Democratic Party fundraising event at a facility that trains young people for jobs in tech and construction, Harris greeted Whitmer with a hug. She opened her speech by thanking and praising the governor, whom she called an “extraordinary leader” who is “always about real talk” and had kept her campaign promise to “fix the damn roads.”

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But at the highest levels of American politics, permanent allies can be hard to find.

Harris and Whitmer “have played well and supported each other,” said John Sellek, a Lansing, Mich.-based Republican consultant who led Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign in the state. “But I think Republicans feel it’s safe to say that if Biden didn’t run for reelection, or even if Biden serves a second term, that friendship will become secondary to pursuing the presidency.”

 Vice President Kamala Harris with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Vice President Kamala Harris with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The future of the Democratic Party is a subplot that has appeared throughout this midterm campaign season for Harris, who ran for the nomination in 2020 but has been unable to position herself as the prohibitive favorite to succeed Biden. Her encounters with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have drawn similar interest, given his role as a former candidate and rising star in the party.

Both Whitmer and Harris gained stature during Donald Trump’s presidency, when Democrats sought a counterweight and Republicans saw both women as targets. Trump went after Whitmer repeatedly in his public comments, elevating her national profile. He showed little remorse when state and federal officials charged 13 extremists with a plot to kidnap her in October 2020.

“She’s just tough as nails,” said Jill Alper, a Michigan-based Democratic consultant.

Allies call the purported rivalry between Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg silly talk. But eyes will be on them as they travel together.

Whitmer’s standing as a favorite for reelection in a state that helped Trump secure the 2016 election has only enhanced her national appeal among Democrats, who have lost their lock on the group of Midwestern states that were once the center of their “blue wall.”

“I don’t think Michigan’s going to stop being a swing state in the future. I think any Democrat who wants to become president is going to have to carry Michigan,” said Mark Brewer, chairman of the state Democratic Party from 1995 to 2013. “What better way to carry Michigan than to have a candidate from Michigan?”

Brewer noted that Buttigieg moved his official residency from Indiana to Michigan this summer, and added that Whitmer could just as easily seek a Senate seat or Cabinet nomination.

The Times is tracking the latest national opinion polls on the favorability of Vice President Kamala Harris.

But Whitmer’s flirtations with higher office, while tantalizing, have become a political liability in her reelection effort. She raised eyebrows in June when she declined in an NBC interview to say whether Biden should seek reelection and called interest in her own potential candidacy “flattering.”

In an interview with the Detroit News on Tuesday, she promised to serve her full second term if reelected and called national speculation that she would run for higher office in the near term “baloney.”

Harris’ allies have also tried to quiet talk about her ambition to run for president, especially as Biden insists he will be on the ballot in 2024.

Vice President Kamala Harris greets well-wishers.
Vice President Kamala Harris greets well-wishers at Southfield High School in Detroit on Saturday.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s six years away,” said Bakari Sellers, a co-chair in Harris’ 2020 campaign who is now a CNN commentator. “Kamala Harris is trying to win races in the midterms. She’s not out here running for president. There’s no rivalry between Kamala and Gretchen and anybody else.”

Biden’s and Harris’ low polling numbers have made it challenging for them to campaign for fellow Democrats, some of whom have reason to avoid joint appearances with their parties’ top leaders. Biden has said he will do whatever helps his allies the most, even if that means staying away. Neither Biden nor Harris have appeared at many campaign rallies.

Harris remains in demand as a fundraiser and, in many places, as a promoter of the administration’s accomplishments. People close to her say her campaign strategy is tied more to her appeal with key demographic groups — including women, people of color and young voters — than regions of the country. Hers is similar in some ways to the role played by former Republican Vice President Mike Pence, who courted evangelical voters and members of the Republican establishment who were uncomfortable with Trump.

Harris, notably, has spoken more extensively and forcefully about abortion rights than Biden has, emerging as the administration’s main spokesperson on the issue after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade in June. Democrats hope a ballot initiative adding abortion rights to Michigan’s Constitution will help drive turnout in the state, where several House races remain competitive.

Harris appeared in a series of interviews with Black-oriented radio stations in Atlanta, Las Vegas and Milwaukee this week, and also spoke in July to the Essence Festival, a Black-oriented gathering in New Orleans. She also spoke with news radio stations in Philadelphia, Detroit and Minneapolis this week.

After the state party fundraiser at the job training site on Saturday, Harris and Whitmer toured the facility together.

Later that afternoon, Harris spoke at an organizing event for first-time voters in a Detroit suburb. In a packed gymnasium at Southfield High School, Harris — at 57, the youngest of the Democrats’ current national leaders — addressed a boisterous crowd of students and parents.

“To the young leaders here, I will say: I know you guys have been through a lot these past two years,” she said. “People that have had to go through the most … are usually some of the most generous people you’ve ever met.” Voting, she added, is one of the greatest ways that young people can serve their communities: “Our nation needs you.”

After the high school event, Harris headed to the airport. She had to catch a flight home to California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom has emerged as another potential rival.


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