As Kamala Harris was mulling her midterm pitch over the summer, she made a departure from the White House script.
The vice president was, she conveyed privately, not interested in echoing the phrase “ultra MAGA,” a slogan pushed by the White House to ridicule Republicans embracing Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again movement.
It wasn’t so much that Harris questioned its potency with voters, two people familiar with the conversations told POLITICO. She wanted to be direct in describing the threat she saw from far-right Republicans. Harris indicated she viewed the term as inadequate and, most importantly, inauthentic to her. As she hit the trail, Harris has leaned instead on words like “extremists,” and descriptors such as “so-called leaders,” to help sum up a GOP she views as enthralled with, and terrified of, Trump — and an existential danger to the future of democracy.
There has been little distance between Harris and Biden as they crisscross the country to campaign for Democrats. But for some in her orbit, the seemingly minor distinction over semantics has come to represent something much larger for a veep intent on maintaining her own voice and carving out a lane for herself, even as she labors in a backup role defined by loyalty.
Harris’ growing comfort amid the steady beat of political activity marks a period of relative stability. There has been a perceptible absence of negative noise hanging over her every movement — to the point that the VP’s allies now don’t so much vent about Beltway coverage as they do a lack of it.
Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who has sat in on events with Harris, contended the VP has proven helpful for Democrats “in talking about reproductive freedom and also stumping for candidates to help build enthusiasm and rally the Democratic base.” But Finney acknowledged, “part of the nature of the job of vice president is if you’re doing a good job, we don’t hear much about you. That is a challenge in and of itself, because then people don’t know as much about what you’re doing.”
There isn’t a modern playbook for the situation Democrats and Harris find themselves in as they brace for likely pain come Tuesday. Biden’s own political future is still in doubt even within his own party, and questions over whether Harris can become the standard-bearer have grown rather than dissipate over her time in office. That’s raised the stakes for her to perform on the trail.
One Democratic strategist in close touch with the White House noted there weren’t close to as many eyeballs and a veritable D.C. parlor game scoring the midterms for Harris’ predecessors — all of whom received arguably less interest than she has from nearly every standpoint.
Biden seemed aware of that focus when he followed Harris in addressing a party crowd Friday in Philadelphia. “She’s more like my buddy and my sister, but I trust her with my life,” he said. “I trust her completely.”
At the same time, Harris hasn’t been able to escape the poor environment for Democrats. Like Biden, she’s watched her topline job approval numbers sag, compelling the pair to remain largely in bluer states and forcing the administration to be creative when deploying them into Senate, House and gubernatorial battlegrounds — in those times when they actually have.
Harris was in deeply Democratic Massachusetts on Wednesday to campaign for the ticket, and she is set to return Thursday to New York for a get-out-the-vote event with Gov. Kathy Hochul in Manhattan. She’ll then head to Illinois on Sunday for an Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders event before flying out to California.
If Democrats lose control of the Senate, her historic turn as the tie-breaking vote in that chamber would end, bringing its own set of pluses and minuses. In her time as VP, she has been tethered to the nation’s capital to help pass bills and confirm nominees. In her first two years, she has already reached the distinction of third of all-time with 26 broken ties, trailing only America’s first vice president, John Adams and its seventh, John C. Calhoun. A GOP-led Senate would free her from Washington. It would also mean less history-casting votes to which she could point.
Earlier this year, Harris asked aides to help get her on the road at least three days a week. After initial reluctance, she embraced becoming the administration’s leading voice on abortion.
When strategizing about what her role would look like during the midterms, the VP aimed for meeting with smaller groups and building out a network of key constituency groups — specifically to appeal to women, young people and voters of color, her aides said. She wanted to help them connect issues like abortion rights to voting rights and same-sex marriage.
“She believes that we have to give people their talking points. We have to say, ‘I want you to know what to say when people ask you that question. Because one, they will, and two, they should,’” a senior Harris official said.
Harris’ itch to be more widely involved was apparent in those meetings. Participants say she would often pull back from, say, a discussion on abortion and connect it to a broader umbrella of privacy rights.
“She often references the fact that voters of color and young people turned out in historic numbers in 2020 and this is what we were able to deliver for you,” another Harris aide said, pointing to lowering prescription drug costs, forgiving student loan debt, decriminalizing marijuana and eliminating lead pipes. “We need that same level of engagement and enthusiasm as we had [in 2020] headed into the midterms.”
It all adds up to something of a page turn for Harris. The hiccups are still there, magnified by critics on Twitter, though they come less frequently. The struggles to gain broader popularity exist, but there’s less chaos swirling. People around her feel like she’s been able to exert more independence and has started in earnest to dig out from the painful early months marked by uneven performances and staffing troubles.
“In the first year there was also a lot of discussion of what is her portfolio and comparing her vice presidency to Biden’s,” said Joel K. Goldstein, a vice presidential historian. The focus seems to have since shifted to “how can she add value.”
Though doubts persist about her future, Harris’ last year has provided her with some political benefits, mainly, firmer connections with the party’s core constituencies. Her abortion roundtables and discussions have given her entre to scores of state legislative leaders and attorneys general working on the issue. But they also helped open doors to several swing states on a pressing policy concern. Since August, she’s stopped off in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida and Minnesota. She also has visited a number of college campuses.
In recent days, Harris has called into dozens of radio stations in key battlegrounds. Meanwhile, she has headlined more than a dozen fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee this year. In Texas, party organizers said her recent keynote speech for the state Democratic Party’s Johnson-Jordan Dinner raised the most in its history.
Separately, aides and party officials said there’s been a concerted effort to get her in front of more allies from labor and other groups like the NAACP and Urban League, as well as into the bloodstream of audiences that don’t consume traditional news media — strategies that dovetail of late with the president’s.
She’s also done more press, sitting for interviews on late-night TV and at least eight podcasts, including the climate-focused A Matter of Degrees, where she nerded out over her love of clean school buses. She also chatted with Popsugar. And for all that, Harris’ defenders still say she deserves more credit than she’s currently getting.
“The VP has done everything she’s been asked to do,” said Bakari Sellers, a fierce Harris ally who lauded the White House for giving her more space and “letting her be great.” But, he added, the press coverage hasn’t reflected that.
“[I]t’s necessary,” he said, “that she gets the treatment when things are going bad and also when things are going good. And for the last few months, things have been going well for her.”
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