Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is done campaigning for herself — at least for now — as she prepares to become Joe Biden’s No. 2. But on Monday, she hit the ground in Georgia with the Senate majority hanging in the balance to assume the informal job as the Democratic Party’s new top surrogate.
Harris’ role as the incoming vice president is central on the campaign trail ahead of the dual January runoffs: If Democrats win both races, they would control a 50-50 Senate, with Harris breaking ties, handing the party full control of Congress. Republicans, even as they refuse to fully accept the presidential outcome, have made their chief campaign message that the two GOP senators are the “firewall” against unchecked Democratic power in Washington.
Biden visited Georgia last week, and President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have campaigned for Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. But Harris’ visit fully cemented how different the next two years could be depending on the outcome of these two races.
“Everything is at stake. Everything that was at stake in November is at stake leading up to January 5th,” Harris told the crowd at the drive-in rally in Columbus, a city on the state’s western border with Alabama.
But while the rally was a major boost for Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock 15 days before the runoff, it also provided a preview of the major part Harris is expected to play for the next four years as a top draw for down-ballot Democrats, from special elections and governors races in 2021, to the 2022 midterms and beyond. A history-making first Black woman vice president, Harris is also relatively young compared to the rest of the Democratic Party’s leadership.
“Outside of probably Barack and Michelle [Obama], she is probably the biggest superstar we have in the party,” said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative who was a top surrogate for Harris during the presidential primary. “She’s someone in those environments who excels.”
Harris’ rally Monday was in Columbus, an area Biden and the two Democrats carried in November that has emerged as a major battleground in the runoffs. She was also scheduled to rally in suburban Gwinnett County near Atlanta, though the event was canceled so Harris could return to the Senate to vote on the Covid-19 relief legislation. Biden and Harris carried Muscogee County by 24 percentage points in November — but Ossoff and Warnock lagged behind that performance, and turnout in the area was below the statewide average.
“This will make voters understand here in this part of the state that our votes really do matter,” said Laura Walker, the county Democratic chair.
Harris rattled off a litany of Democratic priorities during the event, including tax credits for first-time home buyers, police reform and a national standard for the use of force, and supporting small Black-owned businesses.
“We need the support and the votes to do that,” she said.
Speaking before Harris, Ossoff, who is challenging Perdue in the state’s regularly scheduled Senate race, repeated a line he’s used more and more on the campaign trail, including at Biden’s event last week. Ossoff said that if Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stays in charge of the Senate, “he will try to do to Joe and Kamala just like he tried to do to President Obama.”
Harris is sensitive to limit her self-promotion — in large part to avoid tension with Biden, who has not decided whether he’s going to run again in four years. That makes her campaigning on behalf of down-ballot Democrats — as an ambassador to the Biden administration — the closest she’ll come to rallying the party behind her as she eyes ways to remain active on the trail.
Harris speaks often about how much she genuinely enjoys stumping for fellow Democrats, something longtime staffers and associates attribute to her being more comfortable talking up others than touting herself. Ahead of her visits, she probes aides about the state of the races and the latest on the candidates for whom she’s appearing. In the 2018 midterm elections, the stops became a proving ground of sorts for Harris — who studied the crowds, their reaction to her and ultimately turnout in the areas she visited — as she weighed whether she should run for president herself.
Harris made two trips to Georgia in the run-up to the November election to help turn out Black voters in the state. Last year, in her primary campaign, she was one of the first presidential candidates to hold events in metro Atlanta, stopping at Morehouse College and Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Warnock, the historic church’s pastor, framed her candidacy as “the realization of our ancestors’ wildest dreams.”
Organizers and strategists in Georgia hope Harris’ visit will help energize a broad range of the coalition Democrats need to win next month. Democrats are counting on turnout among diverse suburban voters, are working overtime to energize Black voters both in Atlanta and in the rural parts of the state, and are organizing to turn out Asian American voters, who helped deliver the state for Biden.
“To see Sen. Harris here today in Georgia, to know she was just here a few weeks ago twice to connect with Georgia voters, it feels really good that she sees how important we are,” said Anjali Enjeti, who co-leads the Georgia chapter of the mobilization group They See Blue, which has been targeting Asian American voters for the runoffs. “She sees us for who we are, and she sees Georgia for the diversity of its voters and communities.”
Republicans welcomed Harris with multiple lines of attack. Abbi Sigler, a spokesperson for the state GOP, said Harris was the most “radical liberal” in the Senate, a “mantle she would pass on” to Ossoff and Warnock if they won election. Perdue’s campaign put out a statement highlighting his support for the Covid relief legislation set to pass Monday evening, for which Harris returned to D.C. to vote, and attacking Ossoff, who supported the compromise legislation but criticized elements of it.
And at a GOP campaign stop earlier Monday, where first daughter Ivanka Trump headlined a rally for for Perdue and Loeffler, one of the Republican state legislators invoked Harris’ potential role as the tiebreaker, eliciting a chorus of boos from the crowd.
Perdue and Loeffler are “the only thing standing in the way from Kamala Harris casting the final vote for U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee,” said Jan Jones, the president pro tem of the Georgia state House.
But Democrats are likely to lean just as heavily on that same argument. Mike Nellis, a former senior adviser to Harris’ presidential primary campaign and CEO of Authentic, a campaign consulting firm focused on digital strategy, said Harris would provide a “burst of on-the-ground enthusiasm” for the two Democrats.
“Given how close Georgia was in the general, you can certainly say she’s a big part of the reason we won,” Nellis said. “This is a huge opportunity to show herself as the future of the Democratic Party, especially if Democrats flip both these races.”
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