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Senator Kamala Harris drops out of Presidential Race, amid questions and controversies
Kamala Harris announced Dec. 3 that she is ending her presidential bid. To understand how Harris became a contender, you have to start in California. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)
On November 28, 2019 in Greenville, S.C., Sen. Kamala D. Harris had everything she needed to make her pitch. Big yellow cutout letters spelled “Justice for the People” on the stage behind her. White folding chairs splayed out ahead of her, most of them filled, and their occupants seemed happy to see her. Nothing smelled of a flailing campaign.
It was typical of Harris and her campaign, which has often displayed a desire to be everything to everyone that has instead left voters with questions about who she is, what she believes and what her priorities and convictions would be as president.
As a result, her candidacy teetered, weighed down by indecision within her campaign, her limits as a candidate and dwindling funds that have forced her to retreat in some places at a moment she expected to be surging. After last month’s debate in Atlanta, where she won high marks, her advisers were simply hoping she did well enough to inspire people to donate enough money so that she could air a new ad. As of Wednesday, November 27, 2019, they hadn’t.
In a race marked by stalled candidates, early dropouts and late entries, Harris’s long-stalled candidacy stands out as one of the more fluid. At the outset, party leaders viewed her as one of their best chances to beat President Trump — a rising female star with a mixed-race background who could rebuild the coalition of voters that propelled Barack Obama to the presidency. That sense was affirmed at her launch rally in January, when she bounded onto the stage in Oakland and lit into Trump, to the delight of a crowd of more than 22,000 people. Trump, himself, praised Harris at the time for having the “best opening so far” and a “better crowd, better enthusiasm” than the other Democratic candidates.
But Harris has struggled to re-create that level of enthusiasm. While she has consistently sought to be the candidate who could appeal to all parts of her party, she has veered from one message to another in an effort to kindle support.
Harris staffers and advisers’ plan for the past few months has been simple: Put Harris in front of as many Iowa voters as possible, hoping a strong showing there can propel her into a top finish in South Carolina and beyond.
Initially, Harris pitched herself as the candidate “speaking truth” and asserted that she alone would talk candidly about the nation’s problems, including racism, sexism and gun violence. But she tiptoed around specific aspects of her record, which undermined the truth-talk, as did equivocations on Medicare-for-all and other policies.
In June, she decided to embrace her record as a prosecutor more directly in a speech in front of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, where she explained why she became a prosecutor, why she was proud of her work, and why she decided to try to make change from the inside.
Her approach soon switched again, as Harris built a stump speech and an entire bus tour through Iowa around what she called a “3 a.m. agenda” — issues she said keep Americans up at night. The message was meant to position her between the more sweeping ideological platforms of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the return-to-normalcy agenda of former vice president Joe Biden. But Harris, so direct in prosecutor mode, never seemed as confident delivering that broader message.
As her message shifted, Harris took further criticism for shifting positions on Medicare-for-all. Her debate performances also fluctuated. In the first debate, she delivered a blow to Biden when she pointed out she was the product of a busing initiative to end desegregation. Biden fought back in a debate a month later, using Harris’s health-care shift to paint Harris as an equivocator.
In response to an up-and-down summer, Harris’s campaign retooled her pitch again. She settled into another version that plays on her past: “Justice is on the ballot.” Harris argues that injustice is at the heart of many of the country’s ills and that she is the candidate best equipped to deliver justice.
Harris has also been hindered by the internal dynamics of her campaign, which is run by her sister, Maya, along with longtime advisers and their partners in a California-based consulting firm. Multiple people in and around the campaign described competing power centers and said it’s unclear who, exactly, is in charge.
Within the campaign’s Baltimore headquarters, there continues to be unrest about decision-making, according to several people familiar with its inner workings. They say that Juan Rodriguez, one of Harris’s California consultants holds the title of campaign manager but does not always have the final say, particularly on policy positions and messaging. Often, they said, no one knows who has the final word. None could outline the campaign’s decision-making structure.
Aside from Rodriguez, Maya Harris has input in most major decisions, as do some longtime advisers, which means aides have been caught between them on occasion. Even after they restructured their leadership to include Harris’s former Senate chief of staff, Rohini Kosoglu, in late October, the lines of authority remained murky, according to campaign aides who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Staffers and surrogates argue Harris hasn’t gotten the same media attention as her white or male colleagues. Harris has begun talking about “the donkey in the room” — the fact that no woman, let alone a woman of color, has ever won the presidency before. She tells the story of an old woman whose door she knocked on in Iowa when campaigning for Obama. The woman wouldn’t open the door to her and told her through the chain that America would never let a Black man win the presidency. Harris said she persuaded her to vote for Obama anyway. When she finishes that story, Harris explains that she has heard people “aren’t ready” for her in every race she has ever run — and that she has won them all.
After Harris relayed that story and others to the clamoring crowd in Greenville, S.C., Walter Montagne, a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran, waited patiently for his chance to tell Harris some news she hasn’t heard as often as she has needed to lately: She had won his vote. Harris covered her heart with her hand, smiled and cocked her head to the side, as if to show he had moved her. The question unanswered was whether she could move enough people like him.