BOSTON — (AP) — Ruby Brown beamed with excitement in a community college gymnasium as she waited for Vice President Kamala Harris to take the stage at a Massachusetts Democratic ticket political rally
“As soon as her name came out, I said I had to find a way,” said Brown, 58.
The midterms are only days away and control of Congress and statehouses across the country is up for grabs, but Brown and her friends were really hoping for a hint of what might happen in a few years.
“That’s why we’re here,” said Lisa Palmer-Glover, 56. “To see what’s next on the plate.”
The comments are just a glimpse of the expectations and unique trials Harris faces as the first person of color and first woman to be vice president — and as someone who campaigned for the top job before agreeing, Joe Biden’s running mate to become.
The vice presidency is never an easy position, requiring ambitious politicians to slip into sidekick roles. And it was particularly difficult for Harris. She is a pioneering leader, former US Senator and California Attorney General. But she struggled with a series of vexing challenges and internal staff unrest soon after taking office.
Allies say she’s since found a degree of stability, and they describe the midterm election as an opportunity to raise her own voice on issues like reproductive freedom, which became a centerpiece of her message after the US Supreme Court ruled the statewide Abortion rights had been repealed this year.
Now, as Democrats face the possibility of a sweeping defeat at the ballot box next week, the party is bracing for another round of introspection about its future — and by extension, Harris’s.
It’s not a conversation the vice president’s inner circle wants to have as Biden lays the groundwork for a second term, even as he nears his 80th birthday.
“They intend to run, and they intend to run together,” said Laphonza Butler, who served as an adviser to Harris’ presidential campaign and now heads Emily’s List, a political organization that supports women campaigning for abortion rights. “So until there’s another question, that’s the answer.”
Still, for fellow Democrats, the midterm campaign is a chance for Harris, who recently turned 58, to promote constituencies that have supported her in the past and could do so again. Her travels have focused on young people, voters of color and women, including attending historically black colleges and abortion roundtables.
On Wednesday, she rallied in Boston for a list of all-female candidates, from governor to chartered accountant. And she urged the crowd to “call your cousins who live in other states” to encourage them to vote for Democrats.
“Elections are important,” Harris said. “We have accomplished a lot. And we still have more to do. And the stakes are high.”
Though Harris has a reputation for tying herself into verbal knots, allies say she is at her best when she’s fighting for others and — to borrow the rhetoric of the former district attorney’s failed presidential bid — pursuing the case against Republicans.
With poll numbers staying underwater, she’s stayed away from some of the tightest Senate campaigns in places like Arizona and Ohio. But her advocacy for abortion has expanded her travels, taking her to Nevada and Wisconsin, where the president has not campaigned.
She has also chatted with social media influencers and called out to battleground states on radio shows. She has hosted more than a dozen fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee, visiting Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, among others.
Chris Lehane, a former Democratic strategist who worked for Vice President Al Gore, says the midterm elections are an opportunity to post “political brand bail.”
“They are able to help people walking up and down the ticket. And they remember it,” he said.
Turnout among young voters tends to drop in midterm elections, as no presidential race might pique interest. As such, part of Harris’ work has focused on reaching her through social media personalities who have hundreds of thousands of followers.
“If you get involved with your voice, you can get what you advocate for,” Harris told Hannah Bronfman, a health and wellness influencer. “But if you don’t vote, your voice won’t be heard.”
She also spoke to Keir Gaines, a therapist who creates online content about family relationships and mental health, to warn that “your aunt, your sister, your cousin, your daughter” will have fewer rights because of the Supreme Court’s abortion decision .
Harris can steer herself into rhetorical dead ends, causing her allies to flinch and her detractors trying to turn her into viral videos. In September, she referred to the US alliance with the “Republic of North Korea” after touring the demilitarized zone.
Nathan Barankin, who served as Harris’s chief of staff as a US senator from California, said her slip-ups were the result of “being someone who’s been overly scripted, or someone who’s very concerned about deviating from a script that she didn’t create.”
“I would put them up against any of the best retail politicians, at least behind closed doors,” Barankin said. “What you see with 40 cameras on her isn’t usually what she’s capable of.”
An October AP-NORC poll found only about half of Democrats want Biden to seek a second term. But it’s not clear that voters are clamoring for Harris instead. When she ran for president, her campaign stalled before voting began, and now her positive ratings lag behind Biden’s. This is mainly due to the fact that she is less known.
According to the same poll, only 37% of US adults have a positive opinion of Harris. Another 49% see them negatively, while another 13% say they don’t have enough to say. Biden receives similarly unfavorable reviews, but 45% say they have a positive opinion of the president.
Young Americans in particular – those under 30 – often say they don’t know enough to have an opinion about Harris.
A Saturday Night Live sketch from last weekend imagined a horror film about the Democrats’ odds in 2024 if Biden doesn’t run again. When a panicked voter proposes Harris as his successor, another slaps him in the face. “Wake up!” She screams.
Challenging Harris for the nomination would not be an easy task, however.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Democratic kingmaker in his home state of South Carolina, said over the summer that he would support Harris if Biden didn’t run. It was a notable comment from a politician that helped secure Biden’s nomination by demonstrating his strength among black voters.
“Tell me who’s beating them in South Carolina?” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster.
Being vice president can be a thankless task, but no other job allows someone to dress rehearse to become commander in chief.
“She makes me look good,” Biden said in Philadelphia last week. “And God loves her. She’s more like my buddy and my sister, but I trust her with my life. I trust her completely.”
Lehane used a baseball metaphor to describe Harris’ development in the role.
“You don’t get into the major leagues if you can’t hit a major league fastball,” Lehane said. “Rookies have to get used to curveballs and sliders and the pitches that separate the majors from the minors.”
Over the past year, Lehane said, Harris has shown she can do just that.
Cedric Richmond, who worked in the White House before becoming senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee, used an unprintable word to describe the narrative that initially kicked Harris at the job.
“I think she had a good first year,” he said. “I think she was overly scrutinized by the press, and she was a first in a lot of ways.”
Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.
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