Kamala Harris moves into spotlight with AG questioning

Juana Summers
Associated Press
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks as Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller report.

Washington – Kamala Harris found her way back to the spotlight this week.

The Democratic presidential candidate and California senator won praise from liberals for seemingly stumping Attorney General William Barr during a contentious hearing over special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Harris’s team quickly highlighted the exchange in a fundraising appeal and President Donald Trump seemed irked, telling Fox Business the senator was “probably very nasty.”

By late Thursday, more than 4 million people had viewed a C-SPAN video circulating on Twitter of Harris pressing Barr.

The moment was much needed. After launching her campaign in January before an adoring crowd of tens of thousands of people, Harris has largely been in the background in a presidential field that has ballooned to more than 20 candidates. While she has been a fixture in early states and on the fundraising circuit, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are sitting on top of the polls. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, is shaping the policy debate and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, remains the surprise underdog.

Harris will be in Detroit on Sunday, as the keynote speaker at the 64th annual Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner.

Some Democrats are awaiting Harris’ second act.

“I think she is at this moment being drowned out by other candidates unveiling and rolling out big policy positions and proposals,” said Democratic strategist Maria Cardona. “She needs to do the same to reclaim the robust conversation about issues that is being ignited by such a diverse– and big – field of candidates.”

Harris’s team has capitalized on exchanges like Wednesday’s hearing to bolster her oft-repeated argument that she is prepared to “prosecute the case against Trump.” In the four early states that are key to the Democratic nomination, voters frequently cite Harris’s role in the hearing to address sexual misconduct allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh, as a leading reason for supporting her.

But strategists say Harris has been missing opportunities. Her early campaign has been marked by caution, tight control of her message and a fairly traditional approach to media.

Harris “shouldn’t be afraid to be provocative,” said Ben LaBolt, who worked on both of Obama’s campaigns.

LaBolt suggested that her campaign could take a cue from Buttigieg, who’s become known for sitting for interviews with more traditional outlets along with more obscure podcasts and newsletters. Harris did some of that early in her campaign, but LaBolt said she could return to “unconventional platforms.”

Harris’ team sees the next phase of the race, which began at the end of the first fundraising quarter and ends with the first debate next month, as having three distinct priorities: Rolling out fresh ideas and policies, raising money and sustaining a travel schedule that includes frequent visits to key primary states.

Harris’s campaign views South Carolina, home to the nation’s first-in-the-South primary, as essential to its prospects. She has methodically campaigned there, visiting both urban centers and rural parts of the state. Her first campaign policy rollout, a federal investment in teacher pay, mentioned the state explicitly. And she returned to South Carolina for an education round table this week as teachers marched on the Statehouse.

She raised $12 million during the first quarter, cementing herself as a top competitor. Harris’s campaign spent much of the two years aggressively building her online donor list, but she is also finding support on the traditional fundraising circuit, in particular, among bundlers who amass big checks on behalf of presidential candidates.

The campaign already has nearly 200 former Hillary Clinton bundlers committed, according to a person with knowledge of the finance operations. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The average Harris finance event pulls in $100,000, the person said.

Harris is set to return to the fundraising circuit in the months leading up to the Democratic debate, including in California where she’s cultivated donors for years.

“The insanely large field means that the next few months will be wildly unpredictable for everyone so you have to stay focused on creating the conditions to be relevant when it really matters,” said Brent Colburn, a veteran of the Obama administration and both Obama campaigns. “If she can stay in the top half-dozen or so in the polls and continue to raise money she will be a factor in January.”

Many voters and strategists draw comparisons between Harris and the most recent Democratic nominees. Like Obama, Harris is aiming for a similar ascent from first-term senator to president. And like Clinton, Harris is vying to be the first woman president.

Mary Jane Kimball, a retired federal government worker in New Hampshire, said she thinks Harris is “the strongest in terms of who can hold her own.”

“I absolutely love Kamala Harris,” Kimball said. “I think she’s great, she’s engaging. She doesn’t look angry. I think that’s one thing that kind of killed Hillary Clinton.”

In South Carolina, 66-year-old Joann Berry said that Harris’s candidacy filled her with pride as a black woman.

“I have faith in her just like I had faith in Barack Obama,” Berry, 66, said. “A lot of people said he couldn’t do it – and he won.”


Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Washington, Meg Kinnard in West Columbia, S.C. and Hunter Woodall in Manchester, N.H. contributed reporting.