Kamala Harris makes history — as a Westerner
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s decision to tap Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate this year breaks down one of the last barriers in the Democratic Party, making her an historic first for the oldest political party in the United States.
Harris may be the first person of African American and Indian descent to serve as a vice presidential nominee, as well as the first woman to be the Democratic presidential nominee’s running mate since Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.
But she will also become the first person in the history of the Democratic Party to be nominated as a representative of a state west of the Rocky Mountains.
It is an historical oddity that the Democratic Party has never nominated — as a president or a vice president — a candidate from the West. Many have run before; Harris was one of six candidates from a Western state to launch a campaign in 2020, eight if Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who both live at the eastern base of the Rockies, are included.
A host of prominent Western politicians have run for the Democratic nomination before. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and his father Pat both ran three times. Former Rep. Mo Udall (D-Ariz.), a father of Western conservationism, ran in 1976, alongside Sens. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.) and Frank Church (D-Idaho).
But none have ever clinched either the presidential or vice presidential nomination. The closest the Democratic Party has ever come to nominating a Westerner has been with Lyndon Johnson of Texas, George McGovern of South Dakota and William Jennings Bryan, three times, an Illinois native who represented Nebraska.
To be certain, Democrats have nominated someone born in the West: Barack Obama, a Hawaii native. But Obama was formally nominated as an Illinoisan, the state that sent him to the Senate.
Western political strategists have long chafed at their position as outsiders in the national Democratic Party. They see a cabal of New York- and Washington-based media elites who are more familiar with rising stars from eastern states, who conveniently overlook the governors and senators who represent the fastest growing region in the country.
“The West is a victim of a strong anti-West bias in our politics and media by Eastern elites,” said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist. “The caricature of the West is we are wacky culturally and politically. The news media also doesn’t cover the Western states as much as the rest of the country and when it does it is about how different we are.”
Western Democrats have been more likely to ascend to the top ranks of Congress in recent years. The last two Democratic speakers of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Tom Foley (D-Wash.), both represented Pacific Coast states. Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and Ernest McFarland (D-Ariz.) all led the Senate Democratic caucus.
Today, Democrats hold a huge advantage in Western states: The party controls 74 of the 101 House seats in the 13 states in the West and Mountain West regions, and 15 of 26 Senate seats.
Some of the earliest Democratic nominees were from Western states — before the West itself expanded all the way to the coasts. Andrew Jackson, the first nominee of the new Democratic Party, represented Tennessee at a time when that state was the early American frontier. James Polk, another Tennessean, won the Democratic nomination in 1844, and Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas in 1860, as the country began admitting what are today Midwestern states to the Union.
“We’ve had plenty of Western candidates, including four presidential election winners, but it was simply an accident that they weren’t born in the West,” said Thad Kousser, who chairs the political science department at the University of California-San Diego. “Going back, the Western frontier was different, with frontier candidates from Jackson to Tippecanoe to Lincoln winning by running on their Western roots.”
Republicans have had no such qualms about nominating Westerners, three of whom — Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, all Californians — won the White House. The Republican Party’s first nominee, John C. Fremont, had been one of California’s first representatives in the United States Senate.
Republicans will surely return to an old trope in their effort to cast Harris in a negative light in the coming weeks by pointing to her San Francisco roots, where she got her start in elected politics. But those attacks on a “San Francisco liberal” have lost their potency, after years of similar messaging against Pelosi.
“Of course, the irony is the West has a very strong influence on the rest of the country politically and culturally,” Carrick said. “As the old saying goes, news travels East to West and ideas travel West to East.”