Kamala Harris: the top choice to replace Biden as Democratic nominee should he step aside

by Richard Hargy, Queen’s University Belfast

The US vice president, Kamala Harris, rushed to the defense of Joe Biden after his calamitous debate performance against Donald Trump in late June. In an interview with CNN, she said: “There are three things that were true yesterday before the debate that are still true today … First, the stakes of this race could not be higher. Second, the contrast in this election could not be more stark. And third, we believe in our president Joe Biden, and we believe in what he stands for.”

But one in three Democrats now believe Biden should withdraw from the presidential race. And, in spite of her declaration of support, Harris is emerging as the frontrunner to replace the 81-year-old should he step aside.

A CNN poll published last week shows Harris within “striking distance of Trump in a hypothetical matchup” – 47% of registered voters support Trump compared with 45% for Harris. The vice president’s numbers centre on her broader appeal to women and independents.

As well as having been vetted for national office, and intensely scrutinized by the media and the Republican party, there is a degree of momentum building for Harris to replace Biden at the top of the Democratic ticket. There is also notable congressional backing.

Jim Clyburn, a prominent African-American congressman from South Carolina whose endorsement of Biden was critical to his nomination in 2020, told MSNBC on July 2 that he would support Harris to be the Democratic nominee should Biden quit the race.

Biden and Harris stood on a balcony holding each other's hand in the air and smiling.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on the Truman Balcony of the White House on July 4 2024. Tierney L. Cross / Pool / EPA

Born in Oakland, California, on October 20 1964, Harris began her career as an assistant district attorney focusing on sex crimes. She was later recruited to the San Francisco prosecutor’s office, where she focused on tackling teenage prostitution.

After becoming the district attorney for San Francisco, Harris caused controversy by refusing to pursue the death penalty against the murderer of a city police officer in 2004. Despite the political difficulties this caused her, Harris oversaw an increased conviction rate in San Francisco between 2004 and 2007, from 52% to 67%. And in November 2010, she was elected attorney general for California.

A key criminal justice initiative implemented by Harris during this period was the “Open Justice” project. This online platform gave the public open access to criminal justice data as well as collating information on incidents involving individuals held in police custody. She also pursued investigations of police misconduct and opened civil rights investigations into two California police departments.

Harris was elected to the US Senate in November 2016. A little over two years later she announced her bid for the Democratic nomination for president. However, she suspended her campaign in December 2019 citing a lack of financial resources, and was named as Biden’s vice presidential nominee the following year.

Rod Lamkey/EPA

Making history

The Biden-Harris victory in the 2020 presidential election was historic. This was the first time a woman had been elected to the second-most powerful position in the nation, let alone a woman of color.

According to Camille Busette, the interim vice president and director of governance studies at the influential Brookings think tank, Harris’ identity as a Black and Asian woman – and all that it has signified about the hopes of ending systemic racism in America – was a “real factor in [the 2020] election”. Busette pointed to exit polls that showed “72% of non-White voters backed Biden and Harris, and 20% of voters listed racial inequality as the most important issue motivating their vote”.

As vice president, Kamala Harris has served the Biden administration as a useful conduit for connecting with key Democratic groups that Biden struggles to reach. In March 2024, she spoke at an event in Selma, Alabama, to mark the 59th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” – where state troopers attacked demonstrators in what became a seismic moment in America’s civil rights movement.

Harris used her speech to acknowledge the continuing anger felt by many in the US, especially its youth, at the worsening situation in Gaza. She called on Israel to do more for Gazans “dying of malnutrition and dehydration”. She also demanded that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government not “impose any unnecessary restrictions on the delivery of aid”.

Harris, who earlier in the year took on a more focused role in being the administration’s emissary to young American voters, is making a concerted effort to communicate to this key demographic with empathetic statements on the ongoing crisis in Gaza.

She has also assumed a more active role advocating for reproductive rights in America. In early 2024, for instance, Harris embarked on a national tour to highlight the threats posed to these entitlements by a second Trump presidency.

The decision by the US Supreme Court in 2022 to strike down Roe v Wade, the 1973 decision that guaranteed womens’ right to abortion, has ensured the issue will become central to the 2024 presidential campaign and a potential wedge issue for Democrats. As Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at Brookings, writes: “analysts have underestimated the size of the pro-choice vote. In hindsight, there’s no question that it was instrumental in blocking the expected red wave in the 2022 midterms.”

A crowd of demonstrators gathered outside the US Supreme Court.
Pro-choice protesters gathered outside the US Supreme Court in Washington DC to protest the overturning of Roe v Wade in June 2022.
Eli Wilson/Shutterstock

A major advantage Harris would have over any other potential Democratic rival for the party’s presidential nomination is her access to a US$300 million (£234 million) cash-in-hand campaign war chest. Since the Biden-Harris campaign account was registered with the Federal Election Commission in both of their names, the vice president would be able to use these funds.

There was a sense of excitement at the historic ramifications of Biden’s decision in 2020 to select Harris as his running mate. As Kamarck observed at the time: “What Biden knows is that the job of president is too big for any one person; in the White House, as in life, a trusted partner is a great asset.”

The question many are asking now is: if Biden determines the job of president is too much for him, will his “trusted partner” take on the mantle?The Conversation

Richard Hargy, Visiting Research Fellow in International Studies, Queen’s University Belfast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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