The Memo: Is there a way back for Kamala Harris?

The Memo: Is there a way back for Kamala Harris?
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Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisJayapal hits back at Biden on marijuana 'prohibition' Poll: Biden holds 20-point lead in South Carolina Fox News anchor apologizes for saying Booker dropped out of 2020 race MORE (D-Calif.) is under a cloud of doubt after a week in which she announced a staff restructuring, endured more unfavorable opinion polls and sharply reduced her presence in New Hampshire.

It’s been a steep decline for Harris, who had one of the best campaign launches of any 2020 candidate and soared in the polls after a standout performance at the first televised debates in Miami in late June.

At her peak in early July, Harris was in second place in the national RealClearPolitics polling average, with about 15 percent support. Today she is fifth, with less than 5 percent.


Harris still has time to come back — and she made a start with a fiery and well-received speech at the Iowa Democratic Party's Liberty and Justice Celebration on Friday night. The speech's refrain — “Justice is on the ballot” — captivated the huge crowd at the event.

Still, it will be a steep climb for Harris to reestablish herself as a first-rank rival to the three leading candidates: Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenRahm Emanuel: Bloomberg, Patrick entering race will allow Democrats to have 'ideas primary' Feehery: Pivoting to infrastructure could help heal post-impeachment wounds Jayapal hits back at Biden on marijuana 'prohibition' MORE (D-Mass.), former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Democrats release two new transcripts ahead of next public impeachment hearings Press: Ukraine's not the only outrage MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersRahm Emanuel: Bloomberg, Patrick entering race will allow Democrats to have 'ideas primary' Feehery: Pivoting to infrastructure could help heal post-impeachment wounds Jayapal hits back at Biden on marijuana 'prohibition' MORE (I-Vt.). 

Harris is staking much of her campaign on a strong showing in Iowa.

But on Friday, a New York Times-Siena College poll in the Hawkeye State gave Harris only 3 percent support, which put her tied for sixth place with businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangJayapal hits back at Biden on marijuana 'prohibition' Sanders reclaims second place in new 2020 poll MSNBC apologizes after leaving Yang out of presidential poll graphic MORE

Yang was almost unknown in the political world when the campaign began, whereas Harris represents the nation’s most populous state.

There are other candidates, from both parties, who have in the past clawed their way out of holes similar to the one Harris finds herself in.

In announcing the campaign restructuring earlier this week, Harris's campaign manager, Juan Rodriguez, cited the examples of then-Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryPompeo announces Israeli settlements do not violate international law Deval Patrick's 2020 entry raises stakes in New Hampshire Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide MORE (D-Mass.) and then-Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainConservative group cuts ties with Michelle Malkin Democratic debate at Tyler Perry's could miss the mark with black voters Donald Trump's 2020 election economic gamble MORE (R-Ariz.), who came back from the doldrums to win their party nominations in 2004 and 2008, respectively.

Both men, Rodriguez wrote in a memo first reported by Politico, “had to make tough choices on their way to the nomination and this is no different.”

Still, there is an acknowledgement that something just hasn’t been clicking for Harris.

“People really love her when they hear her, but somehow there is just not a connection happening,” said Karen Finney, who was Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Centrists change tone of Democratic race In 2020, democracy will be decided at the margins Michelle Obama presents Lin-Manuel Miranda with National Portrait Award MORE’s senior spokeswoman during the 2016 campaign but is not affiliated with any candidate this cycle.

Finney made clear that she believes there is still time for Harris to come back and that the senator has some prodigious skills. But she also argued that the Harris who delighted Democrats with pointed questioning of Trump nominees in Senate hearings has not been so evident on the campaign trail.

“If you think about her in the [Brett] Kavanaugh hearing and other hearings, she is such a badass. That’s what people love. ... That is the person they were expecting, and maybe they don’t think that’s exactly who they saw,” Finney said.

There have clearly been other missteps too. 

Harris gave a series of confusing answers on whether her health care proposal would eliminate private health insurance. Her breakout moment in the first debate came when she excoriated Biden for his opposition to school busing, but in the aftermath, she was pressed on how much her own position actually differed from his. She too appeared reluctant at best to support federally mandated busing.

Harris’s record as a prosecutor has also drawn scrutiny from the left. She has claimed to be a “progressive prosecutor,” but elements of her record, such as stricter measures punishing parents for their children’s truancy, have discomfited some. 

As recently as 2014, she was opposed to independent investigations of police shootings, a position she shifted by the time of an MSNBC interview in May this year.

The overarching problem is that Harris has not found her niche in a multicandidate field.

“First off, she has got to find a lane, she has got to find a message,” said journalist David Yepsen, who covered the Iowa caucuses for decades for the Des Moines Register and now hosts a show on Iowa Public Television. “Bernie and Elizabeth Warren are fighting over the left lane. And you’ve got Biden and [South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete] Buttigieg more toward the center. Where does Harris fit?”

Supporters of Harris take umbrage at the charge of inconsistency and argue that she has faced harsher coverage than other front-line contenders.

Asked about the complaint that she lacks a clear ideological identity or is inconsistent, Bakari Sellers replied, “That’s bullshit. That’s a horrible assertion” before criticizing what he saw as soft media coverage of Warren’s explanation of how her health care plan would be paid for.

Sellers, a former member of the South Carolina House who endorsed Harris in April, added, “It’s nonsense the characterization that is put on Sen. Harris. I utterly reject that.”

Sellers argued that Harris was still the best candidate to recreate the “Obama coalition” that carried the former president to victory in 2008 and 2012.

Harris’s aides, meanwhile, have cast the campaign restructuring as an effort to focus on Iowa.

But changes that involve the campaign manager taking a pay cut and the closure of three out of four campaign offices in New Hampshire are hard to spin in a positive light.

The Harris campaign will be hoping that her Friday speech could prove to be a turning point. If that's not the case, the road ahead looks bleak.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns Trump's doctor issues letter addressing 'speculation' about visit to Walter Reed MORE’s presidency.