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What Kamala World Is Thinking

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Harris during the vice presidential debate against Mike Pence in 2020.
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Some of Kamala Harris’s biggest donors thought things were looking up on a Tuesday in December 2019: they’d been hearing word of a brand-new super PAC forming to rescue her presidential campaign and that morning the group was placing its first ad on Iowa TV. A few hours later, though, Harris dropped out of the race and the spot never saw daylight. But now, with Joe Biden’s future atop the Democratic ticket in question, a handful of her California fundraisers and supporters have been privately texting and emailing about the ad, nicknamed “Expose.” It’s a minute long and centers on footage of Harris calmly making life miserable for a trio of Donald Trump’s allies in Senate hearings, painting the ex-prosecutor as “the Democrat for president that Trump fears most” — a framing that the donors think could work if she takes over for Biden this summer.

Among Harris’s longtime donors, supportive professional Democrats, and friends, there is a growing sense of nervous anticipation alongside a hardening belief that her elevation to the top of the ticket is increasingly probable. Some of them have gone a step further, trying to game out who she might choose as her running mate, based on the usual notion that the country’s prospective first Black woman president would likely lean toward a white guy governor. The three names who keep coming up: North Carolina’s Roy Cooper, with whom she has a good relationship, Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro, and Kentucky’s Andy Beshear.

The only issue: it’s all conjecture. None of them can get a call back from Harris, or even an acknowledgement that she knows what they’re doing, in the first place. Neither can most of the governors or senators who’ve called the vice president to check in. Not a peep from anyone working for her, either. There wasn’t even any teeny, implicit hint of receptiveness to such game-planning on Tuesday, when about three dozen longtime, San Francisco-based backers saw her at a Nob Hill fundraiser.

Harris herself has stayed consistent since the moment Biden’s disastrous debate in Atlanta ended last Thursday: she has reiterated to her staff, to television interviewers, and to donors at pre-scheduled fundraisers that she is standing by the president. Behind the scenes she has refused to address the hurricane of what-ifs drenching the White House, let alone the mounting calls for Biden to step aside. But that doesn’t mean that she — or her closest allies — are blind to the reality that Biden’s spot on the ballot appears tenuous, that she is the frontrunner to replace him, and that preparing for that possibility might still be immensely politically risky. One ally who’s known her well for decades interprets her resulting studiousness as purely practical: “There’s not much she can do to make things better, but a whole lot she could do to fuck it up.”

Ever since stepping into the vice presidency, Harris has been conscious that she needed to keep her loyalty to Biden front-and-center, telling aides then that she wanted to be careful not to ever look like she was maneuvering for a 2024 run. She hired a team with little high-level campaign experience as she simultaneously stopped talking to many of the top figures from her own 2020 bid. Of course, she was aware of the questions about Biden’s future — she had been on stage with him four years ago when he made his famous comment about being a “bridge” to a new generation, leading to speculation that he’d only serve one term. But she also knew how he felt about his chances against Trump and that he would not step aside, and she has consistently vouched for his fitness for the job. Even now, pro-Harris donors and lawmakers say they’ve received signals that freelancing on her behalf would not be welcome.

Harris watched the debate from Los Angeles and understood as Biden struggled through it that her post-game interviews would be as closely scrutinized as any moment of her career. It was clear she had to underscore his competency and the party’s strength. Equally, though, she knew she couldn’t try gaslighting the anchors or audience into thinking the debate hadn’t been awful, and she acknowledged Biden’s stumbles before spinning over and over a message of confidence. In the hours and days following the debate, Harris was inundated with calls from lawmakers searching for reassurance and some semblance of a plan, but she ignored most, figuring that her most important immediate job was to demonstrate her worth as vice president, and not to play into the “what happens now?” speculation — the resolution of which was up to Biden, not her, in any case. “She’s taking it all in stride,” says one friend, who noted that Harris didn’t have much of a choice. “Unless and until he makes a different decision, her job is to be the best VP she can be.”

Harris has remained on spin duty, even as people in her political orbit tried figuring out if there was anything for them to do yet on her behalf. At a Brentwood fundraiser on Saturday hosted by Rob Reiner — who had loudly fretted that Biden was toast at a debate-night watch party within earshot of Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff — she again conceded that the debate wasn’t Biden’s “finest hour” but insisted that it highlighted the difference between the candidates once you looked beyond “style points.” The election’s stakes hadn’t changed “because of a day in June,” she said, a point she reiterated at the San Francisco fundraiser three days later, where she again tried pivoting attention to the threat of Trump. She flew back to Washington after that event, and on Wednesday met with Biden — with whom she’d also already spoken over the phone — to receive the Presidential Daily Brief, have lunch with him, and participate in a call with his campaign team where he reiterated, “I am running, I am the leader of the Democratic Party, no one is pushing me out.”

The message was clear with the two of them sitting side-by-side on camera — as was the precarity of the moment for Biden’s future and her own. Harris was under the brightest spotlight of her career, with much of the country now believing she could soon take over Biden’s campaign no matter how vigorously he insisted he was staying in.

In the hours after the debate, many Democrats close to the administration and party leadership had expressed horror at the idea that Harris could lead the campaign. After all, her 2020 bid ended dismally, her management and communications struggles in the early days of the VP job were well documented, and her popularity in polls has at times lagged Biden’s. It was widely accepted in these circles that Biden wouldn’t still be running if he thought she could beat Trump. She wouldn’t be able to appeal to swing voters, they feared, and might face an intraparty challenge that could break open ideological fissures that Biden had been able to patch over. As Biden walked off the debate stage, donors and strategists whispered about drafting California governor Gavin Newsom, who was in Atlanta talking to every reporter he could find in support of Biden, or Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, among others.

For some of those close to Harris, this talk of skipping her was infuriating: She was not only the only possible Biden replacement who’d already been vetted on a national scale, she was also the best known and relatively popular among the Black voters and women at the heart of the party’s base — who might balk if she were passed over. Then there was the fact that her critics were apparently forgetting the whole point of a vice president is to step into the presidency. It was obvious Biden had chosen Harris to replace him if needed, and Americans had elected them both.

And then there was the Newsom factor. They came up in San Francisco politics at the same time and for years shared friends, political advisors, and donors. The pair are cordial but by 2022 it was clear to people in both camps that if Biden didn’t run, Newsom would likely not hesitate to challenge Harris. As a result, many of Harris’s allies have bristled when Newsom is mentioned as a possible contender to replace Biden. One top Biden ally this week floated Newsom as an attractive candidate over Harris because of his smoothness as a communicator on TV and in crowds, which would come in handy in a compressed election calendar; one Harris buddy pointedly forwarded me a fundraising email Newsom sent his backers on Wednesday morning before the meeting between Biden and the governors. The subject line was “Heading to the White House,” though the body was about supporting Democrats and it asked for money to support Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey’s re-election campaign.

In any case, much of the resistance to Harris began to soften slightly as the depth of Biden’s political trouble revealed itself, and after she acquitted herself well in her debate-night interviews. But it was only on Tuesday, five days after the debate, that many officials and fundraisers did what one prominent Harris friend calls “a 180,” understanding the high likelihood that Biden would tap her if he dropped out. That afternoon, Jim Clyburn threw his weight behind Harris, saying, “I will support her if he were to step aside.” Some of her doubters began to internalize the difficulty of mounting a short-run primary between multiple contenders. One donor who’s planning to be at the Chicago convention as a pro-Biden delegate told me he’d long been skeptical of her, and had at first looked into ways for other Democrats to compete for the nomination, but that on Tuesday, “I came around.” By Wednesday, some members of Congress had begun surveying their wealthiest constituents to see if they would consider donating to a ticket topped by Harris.

It was around that time that a small collection of freelancing Biden allies began calling their contacts in the Harris diaspora, desperate to know if they thought the VP would be ready to take over as nominee. For many of these Bidenites, anxiety over Harris’s uneven time as Biden’s second in command had lightened in recent months as she barnstormed the country to advocate for abortion rights — a role almost all high-ranking Democrats believe to be her most effective yet. “She can do the fucking job,” one former Harris staffer tells me, referring to the presidency. But “can she win the general election? That I don’t know. It’s hard.”

If the most compelling case against Biden’s continued candidacy is his clear and alarming aging process, the second is that he was already losing against Trump and polls after the debate show a deepening deficit. Harris’s advocates outside the administration think those same preliminary surveys provide reason enough to believe she is as well positioned as any other Democrat to run against Trump. One post-debate CNN poll showed her doing better than Biden, and another from Reuters-Ipsos shows her outpacing would-be rivals including Newsom, Whitmer, Beshear, and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker in head-to-head matchups against Trump. Even the Biden campaign itself shared a poll with supporters that showed Harris doing better than many other Democrats in such a theoretical matchup and exactly as well as Biden. Still, the issue is that every one of these polls still showed her losing the election.

The major question — can she win? — felt secondary to some of her high-powered supporters in Washington as they began thinking about the logistics of a handover. Some read up on the Democratic National Committee’s nominating process and sought reassurance from those close to the Biden campaign that it would be simple for Harris to take over the infrastructure and bank accounts if it came to that. Yet such work was all unofficial, and not sanctioned by Harris or her staff; the vice-president has for years been aware that her relationship with Biden is vital to her influence, and that she couldn’t afford to be seen as planning for a future without him. Plus, there was a less comfortable reality to contend with: her relationship with some of Biden’s most influential aides is far more tenuous, and Jill Biden, widely thought to be her husband’s strongest protector now, has famously been skeptical of Harris in the past, after the then-senator’s attack on Biden in the first primary debate in 2019.

With Harris maintaining her loyalty to Biden both publicly and in private, allies have been on the lookout for signals about the future from Lorraine Voles, her chief of staff. Voles, who has not said a word to most of them, is widely respected within Harris’s circles, credited with improving the operations of an office that saw many leaks and staff defections in the first year of the Biden administration. Voles is also where the early gossip always starts when it comes to the question of who beyond her current aides would surround Harris in a campaign, let alone the White House. But no one who is actually around the VP on a daily basis has started angling for a job or gaming these questions out, both to maintain their allegiance to Biden and because they’re far too busy in this chaotic moment. (“The people who would be tasked with that are in save-the-boss mode,” says one close ally.)

The rest of her world is spread out. A handful of the top figures from her political past, including her 2020 bid, have worked for Newsom for years and continue to. Some others left her campaign on uncertain terms but now work for Biden. More, though, are scattered throughout agencies and state-level offices in Washington and California. For years, Harris has developed a practice of hiring new aides with every job rather than keeping individuals on staff across many of the roles she’s held. As a result, she has a huge network of former aides and strategists, and she is known to consult many of them unofficially. The only constant has been her sister, Maya Harris, the lawyer and policy advisor, whose informal advice she has long leaned on.

Harris’s task for now is to wait and to keep doing the job she’s been doing. On Wednesday, after their call with the campaign team, Harris joined Biden at his meeting with Democratic governors who were desperate for reassurance, and — at least according to some — got it. Her schedule was starting to fill up for the holiday, too. That day, the White House added her to the program for Biden’s Independence Day celebrations on the South Lawn.

“It’s a luxurious position to be in,” one longtime Harris friend tells me. Or at least it is once you consider the moment’s broader political reality — “that you’re sitting in a pot of shit soup.”

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