Kamala Harris prepares for moment in the spotlight

When Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings next month, he will face a united front of Democratic opposition.
 
He may face no more blistering set of questions than those posed by the senator who sits all the way to the left of the dais, Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle Booker: It would be ‘irresponsible’ not to consider running for president Senate Democrats: Kavanaugh’s classmate must testify MORE (D-Calif.).
 
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A year and a half into her first term in office, the Judiciary Committee’s most junior member is already seen as a potential presidential front-runner.
 
She has used her perch to insert herself into the debate over major national issues like President TrumpDonald John TrumpLondon terror suspect’s children told authorities he complained about Trump: inquiry The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Trump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency MORE’s decision to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and her advisers believe the Kavanaugh hearings will give her another moment to seize the spotlight.
 
The hearings won’t exactly be a coming-out party for Harris, who is already front of mind for many Democratic activists across the country. But they will offer another moment in the limelight that other potential presidential contenders will not have.
 
“I think she finds herself in this moment in time where people are craving leadership,” said Debbie Mesloh, president of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women and a former top aide to Harris when she served as district attorney. “She recognizes that leadership is needed now.”
 
Away from Washington, Harris is beginning to lay the groundwork necessary to take advantage of her newfound stardom.
 
She has spent months on the campaign trail, for both incumbent colleagues and first-time contenders alike, raising more than $5 million for Democratic candidates and groups this year. 
 
“The midterms are going to be a giant turning point, hopefully, for the country, and she’s doing everything she can to leverage what she can bring to the table,” said Sean Clegg, Harris’s chief strategist.
 
In the process, she has built an email list that would rival all but a very small handful of her potential rivals, a reservoir of potential supporters who could form the backbone of a presidential campaign.
 
But while some potential 2020 candidates are offering their support to only a handful of party-backed candidates, Harris is trying something different.
 
She has inserted herself into several contested primaries around the country, endorsing and raising money for candidates — mostly those of color — who do not always have support from their home-state political leaders.
 
It is a risky strategy, one that could potentially anger the very Democrats a future presidential campaign would need to court for volunteer and financial support. But friends and advisers say Harris’s involvement is an effort to use her political capital, at a time when that capital is growing.
 
“Kamala is not a person who sits back and waits to see which way the wind blows,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign and a longtime Harris confidant. “The fact that she has engaged in primaries says a lot about who she is as a person.”
 
Sometimes, Harris’s chosen candidates have fared better than expected.
 
Harris was one of the first national figures to back Ben Jealous, the former NAACP head, whom she has known for a long time. Jealous, now the Democratic nominee for governor in Maryland, beat a more established county executive who had support from Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenOvernight Defense: Details on defense spending bill | NATO chief dismisses talk of renaming HQ for McCain | North Korea warns US over cyber allegations Hillicon Valley: Trump signs off on sanctions for election meddlers | Russian hacker pleads guilty over botnet | Reddit bans QAnon forum | FCC delays review of T-Mobile, Sprint merger | EU approves controversial copyright law Trump authorizes sanctions against foreign governments that interfere in US elections MORE (D-Md.) and former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). 
 
Harris also backed former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D), now the party’s nominee for governor, during a contentious primary against another former state legislator, Stacey Evans (D).
 
Others have not been as successful. Harris was the only prominent national figure to back Mahlon Mitchell, a firefighter’s union leader who finished second in his bid to take on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R).
 
Nowhere has Harris’s imprint on the Democratic Party been more widely felt than in her home state.
 
Harris appeared in television advertisements and literature for 27 candidates in this year’s primary, ranging from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and congressional candidate Katie Porter, who won their races, to Noah Phillips, who lost his bid against the incumbent Sacramento District Attorney. 
 
Phillips attacked District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert for accepting campaign cash from law enforcement organizations just after the shooting death of an unarmed black man at the hands of Sacramento police.
 
Potential presidential prospects use early endorsements and campaign fundraisers as a way to build credit with those who might aid them in the future, said Bob Shrum, a veteran of many Democratic presidential campaigns and now the director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. 
 
“Most endorsements don’t matter. It’s not the endorsement, it’s what she gets from the people underneath,” Shrum said. “What you can get out of it, especially if you endorse in a primary where people have very strong feelings about the direction of the party, you may pick up some of those people.”
 
Harris has started to lay the groundwork in states that hold early presidential nominating contests. She attended a Washington fundraiser for Deidre DeJear, the Democrat running against Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (R).
 
 
And those closest to her say Harris sees an opportunity to use her voice to support a more diverse roster of Democratic candidates — like gubernatorial candidates Abrams and Jealous, and candidates for Congress like Horsford, Colin Allred of Texas and Joe Neguse of Colorado.
 
“If you look at the types of candidates she’s getting behind, there’s a method to the madness,” one longtime Harris adviser said. “She’s always been helpful growing the bench of candidates of color.”
 
When Harris moved from Sacramento, where she served as California’s attorney general, to Washington, few of her old allies expected her to make such a leap into the national conversation. Now, though, most Democratic leaders see her as a likely, if not certain, presidential contender.
 
“She has become the progressive voice, or certainly one of the two or three progressive voices in the country,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg (D), who served as California’s Senate president when Harris was attorney general. “She is a politician who is willing to seize the opportunity.”