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Harris faces pivotal moment with Supreme Court battle

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHere's why Joe Biden polls well, but Kamala Harris does not Immigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart Carper urges Biden to nominate ambassadors amid influx at border MORE (D-Calif.) is set to step into the spotlight as the fight over President TrumpDonald TrumpSunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans Navajo Nation president on Arizona's new voting restrictions: An 'assault' on our rights The Memo: Lawmakers on edge after Greene's spat with Ocasio-Cortez MORE’s Supreme Court nominee takes over the Senate less than six weeks before the November election.

As both a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and nominee for vice president, Harris will likely be the most closely watched Democrat when the panel questions Trump’s choice to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgJudge Judy on expanding Supreme Court: 'It's a dumb idea' Court watchers buzz about Breyer's possible retirement Five hot-button issues Biden didn't mention in his address to Congress MORE.

The ensuing battle will offer her an opportunity to take on a more visible role and draw on her strengths during a campaign in which she has so far maintained a mostly low-key profile. Supreme Court nomination hearings typically draw a comparatively large viewing audience — more than 20 million people watched Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael Kavanaugh Klobuchar offers tribute to her father, who died Wednesday Conservative justices split in ruling for immigrant fighting deportation Supreme Court weighs whether to limit issuance of exemptions to biofuel blending requirements MORE’s hearing on TV alone — giving voters a prime opportunity to see Harris in action after months of a campaign largely waylaid by the pandemic.

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But it could also pose risks as Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden seeks to win over more moderate voters in the final weeks leading up to Election Day.

“How do they feel about having her, not Vice President BidenJoe BidenWarren calls for US to support ceasefire between Israel and Hamas UN secretary general 'deeply disturbed' by Israeli strike on high rise that housed media outlets Nation's largest nurses union condemns new CDC guidance on masks MORE, but Sen. Harris being the lead, front and center, every day arguing against the nominee?” said one Republican strategist. “Essentially trying to dissect and potentially attack a female jurist, conservative or not. There are just a lot of dynamics that are going to be incredibly tricky for her.”

One key question strategists are pondering is how much difference Harris can make at this stage of the race. Democratic strategists are not convinced the hearings will have a significant impact on swing voters, with a dwindling number of undecided voters and mail-in and early voting having already begun in many states.

“I think so much is baked already in the presidential election,” said Michael Gordon, a former Justice Department spokesman and principal at Group Gordon. “I see this as having more of a sway in a handful of Senate races than in the presidential.”

But Democrats say Harris’s role in the hearings can do plenty to galvanize the base, pointing to the $200 million in donations to Democratic candidates in the days since Ginsburg’s death.

And a Marquette University survey taken just before Ginsburg’s death and released Wednesday found 59 percent of Biden’s supporters rate a Supreme Court nomination as very important, compared with 51 percent of Trump’s supporters.

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“I suspect the Supreme Court fight won’t move many voters, but I do think it’ll just drive intensity,” said Mike Nellis, founder of Authentic Campaigns and a former senior adviser to Harris’s presidential campaign.

Harris, drawing on her past experience as a prosecutor, has already shown the ability to parlay her role on the Judiciary Committee into money and energy.

The senator notably questioned Attorney General William BarrBill BarrSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Lawyer for former officer charged in George Floyd death alleges witness coercion CNN legal analyst joins DOJ's national security division MORE in 2019 when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

One clip in particular that went viral showed Harris asking Barr if Trump or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that he open an investigation into anyone, and Barr struggling to give a direct answer.

Harris also garnered attention a year earlier during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings when she questioned him on a range of topics, including reproductive rights.

“Can you think of any laws that give government the power to make decisions about the male body?” she asked Kavanaugh.

“I’m happy to answer a more specific question,” he responded, to which Harris said, “Male versus female.”

The back and forth resulted in Kavanaugh saying, “I’m not thinking of any right now, senator.”

“Kamala was front and center,” Nellis said. “She led the fight against Kavanaugh, and that moment built an intense amount of passion from people across the country, particularly for women and party activists. You can track Kamala’s ascent to becoming a significant national figure to that moment.”

President Trump called her “nasty” as a result of her cross-examination style against Barr. Harris’s presidential campaign fundraised off the remark, which Trump then repeated after Biden chose her as his running mate.

“It seems like anytime Donald Trump feels threatened by a strong woman, he lashes out with this gross, weird attack,” Harris’s fundraising message to supporters read. “It’s the kind of sexism that makes me want to run my head through a wall.”

“You’d think, after three years, he could at least come up with something more original,” the message continued.

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After the Kavanaugh hearings, Democrats up for reelection in 2018 touted their ties with Harris, citing her performance during the event. 

“Did she kick ass on the Senate Judiciary Committee?” Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSenate Democrats offer bill to scrap tax break for investment managers Wyden: Funding infrastructure with gas tax hike a 'big mistake' Sherrod Brown calls Rand Paul 'kind of a lunatic' for not wearing mask MORE (D-Ohio), who was up for reelection in 2018, said at a campaign event with Harris at the time.

Harris also used the attention to campaign for then-Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyRepublicans fret over divisive candidates Everybody wants Joe Manchin Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives MORE (D-Ind.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampEffective and profitable climate solutions are within the nation's farms and forests Bill Maher blasts removal of journalist at Teen Vogue Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives MORE (D-N.D.), who were facing uphill reelection battles and came out against Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

While Donnelly and Heitkamp lost despite Harris’s efforts, Democrats say a performance from Harris will likely only have a positive impact on the Biden campaign at the presidential level.

“I think it’s an opportunity,” Gordon said. “I think she shines in those committee hearings.”

However, Republicans argue that if Trump’s nominee is confirmed ahead of November, any tough questioning from Harris could backfire to a degree on Democrats.

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Trump’s nominee might not be the type of obvious foil for many Democrats as Barr or Kavanaugh. And they say the high likelihood Senate Democrats aren’t able to stop the nominee could harm both Harris and Biden.

“If I were the Biden-Harris team, I’d be a little concerned” about emphasizing fighting against Trump’s nominee, the Republican strategist said, adding, “People are looking for accomplishments.”

Democrats warn that ultimately the Biden campaign and the party’s messaging should be on what they say is the hypocrisy of the GOP in holding a Supreme Court nomination hearing just before an election. Republicans say Senate control determines the outcome of election-year nominations. 

“That’s a message that is very easily translatable and understandable to average Americans,” Gordon said.