Democrats seek Harris boost in Senate race
Democrats are hoping that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) can help boost the party’s candidates in key Senate races by helping to boost turnout by Black voters, particularly in the South.
Black voters make up large percentages of the Democratic electorate in Georgia, where Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) is in a toss-up race, and in South Carolina, where Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) is facing a serious challenge.
Democrats already hoped for strong voter turnout given support from Black voters for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, along with Black antipathy for President Trump.
They’re now hoping the historic nature of the Harris pick — she is the first woman of color to be on a major party’s presidential ticket — will give turnout an extra push.
“If you’re looking at where Kamala Harris can make a difference, look at those Senate races in the two or three key states that might make the difference in gaining the majority,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist and former national surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign.
“What she is a symbol for is not just African Americans, not just South Asians, but for people of color generally,” he said of Harris, who is the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India. “To win those Senate races, especially in Southern states where Democrats can only win statewide with a huge turnout, that’s where she could matter at the margins.”
There are already signs that Biden’s presidential campaign is building out Harris’s political team with an eye toward the South. On Tuesday, the campaign tapped its Southern Political Director Vince Evans as Harris’s new political director.
That move comes as Democrats eye the South with increasing optimism in their bid to recapture a majority in the Senate.
For much of the past year, the battle for the Senate has hinged on GOP-held seats in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina. But two Republican-held seats in Georgia have come up for grabs in recent months, and Democrats believe they also have a chance to oust Graham in the GOP stronghold of South Carolina.
In Georgia, Perdue is facing a tightening race against Democrat Jon Ossoff, with recent polls showing the GOP incumbent leading by only a few points. Likewise, Democrats believe they have a shot at flipping the state’s other Senate seat, currently held by Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R), in a special election in November.
South Carolina poses a tougher challenge for Democrats, but the party’s candidate Jaime Harrison has raked in staggering sums of money in recent months and some polls show him within striking distance of Graham.
Victories in either of those states would ease Democrats’ path to a Senate majority. Republicans currently hold a 53-47 seat advantage in the chamber, meaning Democrats will have to flip three or four GOP-held seats, depending on which party wins the White House, to take control of the Senate.
For Democrats to win in the South, it will almost certainly require high turnout among Black voters. While Biden already has broad support among those voters, some Democrats believe that having a woman of color like Harris at the top of ticket could help motivate people who may still be on the fence about voting in November.
“I think that this ticket will have a push and pull effect,” Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist, said. “It’ll pull up down-ballot candidates and it’ll push up turnout like we’ve never seen before.”
Harris is no stranger to campaigning in the South. During her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, she built out an extensive campaign operation in South Carolina and held more events there than in any other early primary or caucus state.
Biden himself has proven popular among Democrats in the South. He won the South Carolina presidential primary by a nearly 30-point margin in February before going on to dominate the competition in other Southern states like North Carolina.
Seawright cautioned against tying Biden’s running mate choice to the prospects of Democratic Senate hopefuls in the South, saying that candidates such as Harrison and Cal Cunningham in North Carolina will still have to stand on their own if they hope to win in November.
“Use [the presidential ticket] where you can as an asset, but you still have to be laser focused on making the race about you,” Seawright said. “Let the top of the ticket do their part and you do your part.”
Christopher Devine, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton who has written extensively on vice presidential candidates, said that running mates matter little in determining how voters cast their ballots. Because of that, Harris “probably isn’t changing the decision to show up in the first place,” he said.
“[Running mates] probably aren’t having a very big effect on whether people show up in the first place or how they’re voting in other down-ballot races,” Devine said.
But he said that having Harris on the ticket could affect how voters define the Democratic Party as a whole, and consequently, how they view the party’s Senate candidates.
“The main effect of the running mate is to actually change how people see the presidential candidate and in the same sense, I think they can affect how people see the party,” Devine said.
“In that sense, the choice of a running mate helps to define the party and therefore helps to define the choices that people make in a Senate race,” he continued. “It’s not just Tillis vs. Cunningham, but what kind of movement they represent.”
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