While the presidential election of 2020 is still several years away, there’s already intense speculation about who will run, particularly on the Democratic side, since it’s assumed that President Trump will desire a second term in office.
Up until recently, the most likely Democratic choices appeared to be the obvious ones — Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and possibly — just maybe — Hillary Clinton in a “third time’s the charm” bid. But the more Democrats mull over these choices, the more they look like dead ends. Those three people will all be in their 70s in 2020, with Sanders being 79.
Most Democrats would love to find someone with “young blood” that could “catch fire” as Barack Obama did in 2008 — although we all know how that turned out. Still, the prospect of fielding someone from a younger generation is immeasurably exciting to those constituents on the Left who feel that by 2020, Trump could be vulnerable to a younger challenger. Until now, however, the perennial question that’s repeatedly been raised is “Who?” Now, however, Democrats may have their answer in California Senator Kamala Harris.
Currently just 52 years old, Harris is a generation younger than Democratic Party leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren. Like Barack Obama, she’s the daughter of immigrants, in her case from India and Jamaica. Although she’s only serving her first term in the Senate (she replaced longtime Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer), she’s rapidly acquiring an Obama-like “buzz” that could easily bloom in full by the time 2020 rolls around.
Although Harris and her team have denied that she’s has her sights set on a presidential run, her actions say otherwise; she’s been making speeches to crucial national demographic constituencies. She’ll be appearing on a Washington think-tank guest panel with other presidential contenders that the media will be covering extensively in a number of days.
She’s been actively fundraising for her Democratic colleagues such as Warren, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and has been forming solid relationships with known national reporters. These are all routine steps that major candidates take in the years prior to their announcing a presidential run.
“A lot of activists in the party would love to see a new leader step forward,” says Roger Hickey, the co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive strategy group. “I’m looking forward to seeing how she performs as a senator; I think the sky is the limit for her,” said Jaime Harrison, a counselor and the associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
“From everything I’ve seen of her, she’d be an attractive candidate; she could be a compelling candidate, and I think she’d have a lot of appeal for primary voters,” noted Bob Shrum, a senior advisor to John Kerry and Al Gore during their presidential runs. Shrum believes there’s a strong wish within the Democratic Party leadership that former Vice President Joe Biden would run, but at age 78 in 2020, this seems like a very remote possibility. Shrum agreed that “there’s a deep desire in the Democratic Party to move on to a new generation.”
Whereas Obama really started to capture national attention when he gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Harris had a starring role in this year’s Women’s March on Washington, which drew huge crowds to the capital and attracted international reporting. She followed up with a speech at an immigration rally outside the White House and a popular podcast with noted Obama advisor David Axelrod, who’s regarded as the man most responsible for propelling the former president to victory in 2008.
Harris was the keynote speaker at the Madeleine Albright Luncheon held by the National Democratic Institute, a prominent Washington event sponsored by a nonpartisan, nonprofit group. Last week, Harris gave the commencement speech at her alma mater, Howard University. Earlier this week she spoke at the Ideas Conference, an event touted as the liberal equivalent of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which is a traditional breeding ground for GOP presidential candidates. These are exactly the types of steps that previous presidents including Obama, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter took before they ran for office.
The downside for Harris may be that while she’s building national recognition, perceptions of her in her home state of California are lagging. Even though she won her Senate election with 61.6 percent of the vote, a recent poll taken by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that 30 percent of all Californians — including 20 percent of the state’s Democrats — don’t know anything about Harris and can’t comment on what they think of her performance in the Senate.
Indeed, in interviews with ardent Harris supporters, even her strongest citizen backers believe it’s too soon for the young senator to go for the nation’s top job. “It’s too early,” remarked Gary Peichoto, a Harris voter from Modesto. “I’d rather go with Elizabeth Warren.” Christine Wasserman, a Los Angeles social worker, said she’s liked Harris ever since the senator (who was then California’s attorney general) negotiated a settlement with the country’s five biggest mortgage firms over improper foreclosure practices prior to the 2008 financial crisis. But Wasserman, also, believes it’s too early for Harris to run for president. “Let’s let her be a senator for a while,” she said.
When pointedly questioned about the chances of her running for the position of commander-in-chief, Harris denies the speculation. “I’m not thinking about that,” she says. “I’m four months into the Senate, and I’ve got a lot of work to do. I just got back from Iraq, from Baghdad, and from looking at one of the largest refugee camps in the world, with 80,000 Syrian refugees. These are the issues I will focus on.” Of course, it should be said that Obama also played the same game before he ran, and Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker have all vigorously denied they’re in the running for the Democratic nomination.
Harris’ denials haven’t stopped major potential supporters such as Bob Schoonover, the president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — Los Angeles County’s largest employee union, with over 57,000 members — from talking her up. “I think she should consider [a run for president],” said Schoonover. Support like that would be critical for Harris to garner.
“She’s in such demand,” said Vito Chiesa, the chairman of California’s Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors. “She’s kind of a chosen one.” Former President Obama chauvinistically referred to Harris as “by far the best-looking [state] attorney general in the country,” a remark that he later apologized for for its blatant sexism.
Harris has made it clear that immigration will be a key issue that she’ll focus on and be identified with. She spoke out against the confirmation of Trump Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly, and her anti-Trump sentiment in this area has made her stand out to progressives.
According to prominent Democrats, Harris’ next steps if she’s seeking higher office would be to campaign for members of her party seeking election in 2018 in early 2020 primary states such as South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa. “I think she’s articulate; I think she’s a lawyer,” said Dick Harpootlian, the former chairman of the South Carolina state Democratic Party. “I think she’s somebody who could galvanize a huge swath of progressives, but she’s untested on a national stage.”
Time will tell if Harris can live up to the potential that many people believe she has. In the meantime, conservatives would do well to study her background further to look for chinks in her armor. It’s almost guaranteed that if she were to run, she would play the “woman card” as hard as Hillary Clinton did or even more so.
California is a big state with a lot of constituencies, so it likely wouldn’t be difficult to find some voters who are extremely unhappy with her by 2020. For now, it’s worth keeping one’s eyes on this younger player.