🔒 FT: Is this Kamala Harris’s moment? VP tops the list of Biden replacements

Despite scepticism from donors, Kamala Harris remains a strong contender within the Democratic Party to replace Joe Biden. After Biden’s recent debate struggle, Harris defended him and now stands as the leading candidate if Biden steps down. While some party members are apprehensive about her potential candidacy, her substantial campaign funds and strong support from key Democratic constituencies position her well against Donald Trump. Harris’s recent public appearances have bolstered her standing, suggesting she’s ready for the challenge.

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By Joshua Chaffin, James Fontanella-Khan and Lauren Fedor in New York and Alex Rogers in Washington

Donors are sceptical of US vice-president, but she has a base of party support if the Democrats replace Joe Biden ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Minutes after Joe Biden’s disastrous debate performance sent the Democratic party into panic, Kamala Harris took to the airwaves to defend her boss. Soon she might replace him.

As Biden’s support in the party leaks away, his vice-president is the leading contender to claim his place atop the Democratic party ticket. On Wednesday afternoon she lunched with the president at the White House in their first face-to-face meeting since last Thursday’s debacle.

The prospect of her elevation is stirring reactions across the top of her party that range from acceptance to trepidation to resignation. But all agree on the ultimate question: would Harris do better than Biden — or any other candidate — against Donald Trump?

Alan Patricof, a financier and longtime Democratic party donor, said on Wednesday he was still supporting Biden — for now — but that he had been encouraged by Harris’s recent performance.

“She’s probably the easiest pick to substitute Biden if it comes to that. I think she could handle herself well against Trump,” Patricof said. “I think she’s a real possibility. If you’d asked me two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have said that.”

She would have another immediate advantage. Under America’s campaign finance laws, Harris would inherit hundreds of millions of dollars in Biden’s campaign war chest because she is already on the party’s ticket alongside him. Transferring that cash to other candidates would be more complicated.

But an adviser to Wall Street donors said their clients would respond negatively if Biden anointed Harris as his replacement. Some criticised a tenure as vice-president that has featured awkward public appearances. Others believed she had been complicit in covering up the president’s deteriorating condition.

“Kamala isn’t the preferred candidate for many donors, I can tell you that,” the adviser said. “There needs to be a real competitive process, then the donors will pick their horse.” One New York donor was less diplomatic: “Kamala would be a disaster . . . We are better off with a candidate who can barely speak.”

Race will factor into any deliberations. Overlooking the first woman of colour to hold the vice-presidency would alienate Black voters, a core Democratic constituency, several consultants said. The most frequently mentioned alternatives — the governors of Michigan and California, Gretchen Whitmer and Gavin Newsom — are both white.

“While she is not the most popular human being, wait until someone tries to take away a Black woman’s job,” a veteran party strategist said.

On Tuesday, Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina congressman who was pivotal in securing Black Democratic support for Biden’s candidacy in 2020, told MSNBC he thought Harris would do “very well” at the top of the ticket if the president stepped out of the race. Democrats should “not in any way do anything to work around Ms Harris”, he warned.

Meanwhile, a Democratic operative close to the White House was betting that Biden would back Harris for three reasons — not least his own bitterness that Barack Obama had passed him over in 2015 to support Hillary Clinton as his successor.

“One, he is pissed about Obama screwing him when he was vice-president. Two, because she is a barrier-breaker for all of the obvious reasons. Three, because he wants to avoid chaos [at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago],” the operative said.

Harris herself struck a determined — if vague — tone in a call with campaign staff on Wednesday. “We will not back down,” she said. “We will follow our president’s lead. We will fight, and we will win.”

The daughter of Indian and Jamaican academics, the vice-president, 59, defies easy political categorisation. She was raised in the Bay Area but moved frequently due to her parents’ careers.

Harris attended the historically Black college Howard University and then studied law at the University of California, San Francisco. She launched her career as a hard-nosed prosecutor while still managing to hone an identity as a progressive Democrat.

After becoming California’s first female — and first Black — attorney-general in 2011 she won election to the US Senate five years later. There, she distinguished herself as a formidable interrogator during high-profile committee hearings about Trump’s alleged ties to Russia and the confirmation of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Those performances, often fodder for viral videos, raised excitement for a presidential run that ended up fizzling early amid claims of bickering and mismanagement among her staff.

Still, when Biden selected Harris as his running mate he bestowed a special blessing upon her: his eldest son Beau, who died of cancer in 2015, had spoken highly of her in his work as Delaware’s attorney-general, he said.

But Harris has struggled with what is, by repute, the worst job in American politics: the vice-presidency, with approval ratings — until recently — even lower than Biden’s.

In his book on the Biden White House, The Last Politician, Franklin Foer portrays a politician burdened by the weight of her role as the first female and Black vice-president — yet also determined not to be bound by her identity. For that reason she turned down offers to work on race and women’s issues.

“Constantly in search of a portfolio but reluctant to accept them when they were suggested to her, she asked to be placed in charge of relations with Scandinavia — away from the spotlight,” Foer wrote.

Harris ended up with a thankless assignment: the migration crisis on the US’s southern border. Her performance has been defined by a now infamous interview last June with NBC’s Lester Holt, in which the vice-president became flustered and then giggled when asked why she had not visited the southern border — a point on which Republicans had hammered her for months.

By contrast, Harris was as crisp and commanding after Biden’s debate last Thursday as the president had been cloudy and incoherent. Speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, the former prosecutor managed to shift the focus to Trump.

“People can debate on style points but ultimately this election and who is president of the United States has to be about substance, and the contrast is clear,” she said, blasting Trump for his role in the January 6 2021 attack on the US Capitol. 

She was especially forceful on Trump’s record on abortion — Democrats’ most promising issue and one on which Biden had whiffed earlier that evening.

“He has been completely ambiguous and all over the place about where he stands on that issue despite the fact that he selected three members of the Supreme Court with the intention that they would undo the protections of Roe vs Wade and that’s exactly what they did,” Harris said of Trump.

Her performance, according to another Democratic operative, was further evidence that Harris had been “stepping into her own voice” in recent months, and shedding some of the insecurities that had plagued her vice-presidency. 

“A few days ago, my phone was blowing up with every scenario under the sun other than Kamala Harris,” this person said. “Now, folks are starting to say, ‘all right, well if it is going to be her, let’s go’.”

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© 2024 The Financial Times Ltd.