Senate races

Eyebrows rise in Calif. as Kamala Harris makes changes to staff

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Turmoil and lackluster funding in California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s Senate campaign has some Democratic operatives wondering what’s gone wrong.

Harris this week replaced campaign manager Rory Steele with Juan Rodriguez, who was serving as the campaign’s senior adviser.

{mosads}Harris’ team is also cutting costs to control its high rate of spending, which threatens to overtake the money flowing into the campaign account. These changes follow departures by two finance directors earlier this year.

The California Attorney General — who has close ties to President Obama —remains the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and win election to the Senate, but the problems are leading to calls for additional changes. 

Critics point to Harris’s own personality as the reason for some of the problems.

“She’s perceived as very, very difficult to work for,” one strategist familiar with the campaign told The Hill. “She doesn’t have real relationships and partnerships. She has acquaintances.”

The fundraising numbers point to the problem, the strategist said.

“Here she is, she’s running for Senate, as an African American woman, she should be raising gobs of money,” the source said. “The fact that she’s raising one and a half to 2 million a quarter, is absurd.

“She expects fundraisers who helped Obama to help her…She gets upset when donors don’t flock to her, it drives her crazy that she actually has to meet and talk with people,” the source added.

A spokesman for Harris’s campaign dismissed much of the criticism, saying Harris is a strong fundraiser and that the changes she has made will help her.

“Like every campaign, we’re making adjustments in alignment with our strategy to win,” spokesman Nathan Click said.

“Kamala Harris has proven herself to be one of the strongest fundraisers in the country this election cycle and our campaign is going to have the resources to win in June and November,” he added.  “We are making some additional reductions to our consultants and staff to put our campaign in the strongest position to win.”

Since announcing her bid for the Senate in January, Harris has raised $5.9 million and spent $2.6 million, at a relatively high burn rate of 44 percent. In the most recent fundraising quarter, Harris raised $1.7 million and spent $1.4 million at an even higher burn rate of 82 percent, according to Federal Elections Commission filings. 

Her main rival, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), has a burn rate of just 25 percent, but is raising significantly less money.

She has taken $1 million from contributors since announcing in May, and has also loaned her campaign $300,000 and transferred $500,000 from her House account. Sanchez has spent just $250,000 to date.

Harris has been spending at roughly double the rate of other Democrats running in safe seats such as Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Ron Wyden (R-Ore.), the Sacramento Bee pointed out in an analysis of Harris’ spending.  

“It does raise some eyebrows,” Roy Behr, a California-based Democratic consultant who has worked for Boxer, said of Harris’s spending.

“Having said that… none of this really matters because in the end she’s virtually unbeatable,” Behr said. “There’s nobody in the race who poses a threat to her.”

Though she’s the favorite, Harris will still need more than her $3.3 million on hand to win.

California’s expensive media market means advertising comes at a high cost, which will force Harris to significantly increase her cash.

One unaffiliated Democratic strategist said the attorney general is carrying “a lot of consultant overhead.”

“There’s an awful lot of other overhead there for consultants that… in a traditional model aren’t getting paid in an off year and have no reason to get paid in an off year,” the strategist said.

The strategist pointed in particular to the $85,000 in “campaign consulting” fees given to SCN Strategies, whose partner Ace Smith is a veteran of California politics and an adviser to Harris.

Yet some think Harris needs the help.

Asked if Harris should be paying people like Smith as consultants, another high-profile California operative surmised: “Yeah, because I don’t think she has very good political instincts. That’s been the rap on her since she started running. So she has to go for the big guns.”

This source also said Harris needs to talk more about what she’d do as Boxer’s successor to win over support in her state.

“She needs to show a little leg in terms of what she’d do in the Senate,” the operative said. “I mean, she’s been giving her AG stump speech.”

Bill Brandt, a veteran Democratic bundler believes Harris has done the right thing by overhauling her staff at a relatively early stage in the campaign.

“One thing I give Kamala credit for is you have got to constantly re-evaluate your campaign,” said Brandt, who has done political fundraising for more than 30 years and is a longtime friend of former President Bill and Hillary Clinton.

He also said there’s a learning curve to running for the Senate, compared to seeking other statewide offices in California.

“California is an enormous state… What inevitably happens is that people who have run for statewide office have amassed a good team to get there, but when you go up to the Senate level… [the leap is] like running for president.”

Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said there is “no question” that a shuffling this early is indicative of a larger problem but he said it is early enough in the campaign for the change to have its desired impact.

“If fundraising picks up and spending falls down then they made the necessary change,” he said. “If not, then there’s bigger problems to deal with.”

Schnur and other strategists say Harris might be facing a more fundamental fundraising problem: Inertia.

“It may not be that easy to motivate Democratic donors to give heavily in a Senate race that looks like an easy Democratic safe seat,” he said.

“None of the Republicans have emerged yet as a serious threat.

“If you’re a Democratic donor its hard to get all excited about which Democratic woman will replace the current Democratic woman in the Senate.”



Tags Barbara Boxer California Loretta Sanchez
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