When Vice President Kamala Harris returns to the Bay Area on Friday to stump for Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former California senator will have a single mission: to whip up the base.
Which base will she whip up more? That’s another question.
Eight months into her historic term, Harris is facing withering criticism along with President Joe Biden over the growing crisis in Afghanistan, and her star power has suffered: A new USA Today/Suffolk poll finds 54% of registered voters across the country see her as unfavorable and only 35% as favorable.
But once she sets foot back in her native East Bay for a scheduled rally (details are still to come), Harris will be among supporters as the highest-profile Democrat yet to stop by the Golden State to urge voters to reject the Sept. 14 recall effort.
“These are her people,” said Melissa Michelson, a Menlo College political science professor. “They love her.”
Newsom’s campaign is counting on it. They need the governor’s longtime ally and friend (both started their political careers in San Francisco) to motivate Democrats, especially women and voters of color. While Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state roughly two to one, polling suggests GOP voters are more fired up to vote in the recall — which could spell trouble for Newsom.
But the event comes as the Biden administration faces backlash from both Republicans and Democrats for its handling of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Harris said this spring she was one of the last people Biden sought out for advice before deciding to end the war in Afghanistan, leaving her open to criticism over a withdrawal that has sent thousands of Afghans struggling to escape their country as the Taliban cements its takeover after roughly two decades of war.
Randy Economy, an avid recall supporter and former spokesperson for the Recall Gavin 2020 campaign, said Harris coming to California “adds a circus element” to Newsom’s campaign. “I think she’s a big dud, a non-factor,” he said. “All (Newsom) knows is to hide behind people to do his campaigning for him. But he’s the only name on the ballot.”
But political analysts say Harris’ visit could inject badly needed enthusiasm into Democrats for the final push to turn out anti-recall voters ahead of Sept. 14.
“Yes, Afghanistan is in the mix, but, Oh my gosh, there’s so much else going on right now,” Michelson said.
From wildfires scorching large swaths of the state to the delta variant forcing kids out of school, Michelson said, domestic policy is likely top of mind for most voters right now. That could leave Newsom open to criticism over his handling of the pandemic and fires, but it also means Harris’ role in Afghanistan policy isn’t likely to be a major factor.
The fact that Harris is headed to a Democratic stronghold rather than a swing district in the Central Valley might sound odd, but the recall election is far from typical. In this race, Newsom doesn’t need to win over new supporters to keep his job, he needs to turn out Democrats who aren’t necessarily following the news, who might not realize that polling of likely voters shows Newsom’s chances of losing at roughly 50-50.
“Newsom doesn’t need her to reach swing voters nearly as much as he needs her to rally the Democratic base,” said longtime political analyst Dan Schnur, adding that her task is to reach people who might otherwise decide to skip voting in the election altogether.
That includes young people, Latino voters and other progressives who might not be very enthused about putting in the effort to support an affluent white politician whose infamous French Laundry dinner — a classic do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do moment — has not faded from memory.
“This is the segment of the electorate that Newsom needs, and right now they’re just not all that excited about it,” Schnur said.
Bringing in the first female vice president, the biracial daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants who was raised by a single mom in Berkeley, could help. It could also help reframe the election in the context of national politics. Harris will be in a position not only to praise Newsom for his work leading California through the pandemic and other crises, but to explain that his loss could imperil parts of the Democrat’s agenda nationally and fuel GOP momentum heading into the 2022 midterms.
How much time, if any, she devotes to name-checking top challengers like conservative radio host Larry Elder remains to be seen. But Schnur thinks her visit will be “incredibly helpful” for Newsom, regardless. Michelson agrees.
“For people who identify as Democrats but aren’t the highest-propensity voters,” she said, “this will give them that little nudge and bump it to the top of their to-do list.”
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