Kamala Harris faces Democrats’ Rocky Mountain divide

Kamala Harris faces Democrats’ Rocky Mountain divide
© Getty Images, The Hill photo illustration

If Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisOvernight Energy: Natural gas export project gets green light | Ocasio-Cortez says climate fight needs to address farming | Top EPA enforcement official to testify Sanders endorses Oakland teachers strike News media has sought to 'delegitimize' Tulsi Gabbard, says liberal journalist MORE (D-Calif.) wins her party’s nomination to run against President TrumpDonald John TrumpAverage tax refunds down double-digits, IRS data shows White House warns Maduro as Venezuela orders partial closure of border with Colombia Trump administration directs 1,000 more troops to Mexican border MORE, she will have broken through one of the impenetrable barriers of modern politics.

She would not be her party’s first female nominee, nor its first African-American nominee.

Rather, Harris, or a few other candidates who face longer odds, would become the first Democratic presidential nominee from a state west of the Rocky Mountains in the party’s 191-year history, a geographic divide that even political powerhouses like former California Gov. Jerry Brown, former Sen. Frank Church (Idaho) or former Rep. “Scoop” Jackson (Wash.) could not bridge.

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The Republican Party has often gone west to find its presidential nominees, from Californians Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to Barry Goldwater and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGabbard hits back at Meghan McCain after fight over Assad Mellman: Where are good faith and integrity? GOP senator says Republicans didn't control Senate when they held majority MORE of Arizona. 

But the Democratic Party has never nominated a presidential or vice presidential candidate from a state west of Texas (Lyndon Johnson), South Dakota (Hubert Humphrey) or Nebraska (William Jennings Bryan).

Harris, who launched her bid in a national television interview Monday, represents perhaps the greatest chance a Westerner candidate has had to win the Democratic presidential nomination since 1984, when Colorado Sen. Gary Hart (D) lost the nomination to Walter Mondale.

She is one of as many as five other Democrats from Western states who have said they will or are likely to run this year, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Reps. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellDems seize on Times bombshell to push allegations of Trump obstruction Democratic donors stuck in shopping phase of primary Five takeaways from acting AG's fiery House hearing MORE (Calif.) and Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardGabbard hits back at Meghan McCain after fight over Assad News media has sought to 'delegitimize' Tulsi Gabbard, says liberal journalist Rahm Emanuel to Jussie Smollett: ‘If you want to get paid more, get an agent’ MORE (Hawaii).

The lack of Western representation on Democratic presidential tickets has become all the more stark in recent decades, as California especially and the West more broadly have become cultural and economic engines that drive the country.

“California is a nation-state of 40 million people and in many ways a microcosm for the country,” said Sean Clegg, a senior Harris adviser and a Democratic strategist based in San Francisco. “It’s a state, like America, that has always stood for optimism and innovation. In California, we don’t just speak of the ‘American dream.’ We talk about the ‘California dream.’ ”

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The new cohort of Westerners running for president is a reflection of the region’s decades-long growth in influence. 

Massive federal investment in West Coast and Mountain West states during World War II and the Cold War, coupled with the more recent rise of a technology-based economy centered around Western urban areas, has fueled a century-long population and economic explosion.

A hundred years ago, states west of the Rocky Mountains accounted for just 55 electoral votes. Those same states — plus new entrants Alaska and Hawaii — represented 85 electoral votes when John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE won the presidency in 1960. Today they account for 128 electoral votes, a little under half the 270 a candidate needs to win the White House.

While Republicans use California — and especially San Francisco, home to both Harris and House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiKids confront Feinstein over Green New Deal Can progressives govern? Dems plan hearing on emergency declaration's impact on military MORE (D) — as political shorthand, a microcosm of liberalism run amok, the same dismissive attitude masked the rise of another politician once seen as a Western extreme.

“Reagan’s political trajectory is a certain mirror to what we see happening now. He represented a type of extreme Western conservatism that the Eastern elite found laughable, until he was elected,” said Eric Jaye, a California Democratic strategist. “Just as the country once moved to the right to meet the views of a Reagan, the Democratic Party has moved to the left, making California progressives like Harris and Garcetti both electable.”

Scorn from Eastern elites — an attitude freely reciprocated by Westerners looking down on older states back east — contributes to the trouble those in Mountain West or coastal states have in breaking through.

“East Coast pols dominate the national media landscape. That’s a function of where the media and federal government are headquartered,” said Steven Maviglio, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento. “If you are from the West you have to spend tons of time back east, and that’s difficult, particularly for a sitting elected official. The three-hour time difference has practical complications.”

Perhaps seeking to mitigate those complications, Harris has decided to headquarter her campaign in Baltimore.

Western states have taken their own steps to increase their influence in the presidential nominating process. 

After holding their nominating contest near the end of the 2016 cycle, California will now be the single biggest prize up for grabs on Super Tuesday. Nevada is entering its third cycle as one of four early nominating states, and Arizona and Colorado also plan early contests. 

Washington, Hawaii, Alaska and Wyoming — all of which played an important role in handing Midwesterner Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama4 ways Hillary looms over the 2020 race Obama goes viral after sporting black bomber jacket with '44' on sleeve at basketball game Obama attends UNC-Duke basketball game MORE the 2008 Democratic nomination over New York’s Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDem strategist says Clinton ‘absolutely’ has a role to play in 2020 Left-leaning journalist: Sanders would be 'formidable candidate' against Trump Clinton hits EPA for approval of pesticide dump: ‘We need bees!’ MORE — have yet to set the dates for their 2020 caucuses and primaries.

Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, most Western states feature racially diverse Democratic electorates.

“There have been very few candidates to come out of the West, likely in part because of late primaries or the fact that a bunch of these states were led by Republicans back in the day,” said Lisa Grove, a Democratic pollster with roots in Oregon and Hawaii. “The changing composition of the primary electorate, the higher profile of some of the Western contenders like Harris and the earlier primary dates in places like California should make a big difference.”

Plenty of Western Democrats have tried to break through the Rocky Mountain divide. Brown and his father, Pat Brown, ran for president a combined six times. Jackson, the powerful father of what became the Neocon movement, and Church, who led a high-profile investigation into the CIA, barely made a dent. Former Rep. Mo Udall (D-Ariz.) finished in second place in 10 primaries in 1976, and second at that year’s convention, behind Jimmy Carter.

But only three have even come close to winning: In 1992, Brown finished a distant second behind Arkansas Gov. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonInviting Kim Jong Un to Washington Howard Schultz must run as a Democrat for chance in 2020 Trump says he never told McCabe his wife was 'a loser' MORE (D). Hart was the front-runner in 1984, before monkey business derailed his bid. And in 1920, California Sen. William Gibbs McAdoo (D) lost the nomination to Ohio Gov. James Cox (D) on the Democratic National Convention’s 44th ballot.

Harris, and the others planning to join the race, hope to break the West’s winless streak in the Democratic primary. But for any of them to do so, they will have to appeal beyond their Western roots.

“Can a Californian play in Iowa? We think so,” Clegg said.