Harris faces pivotal moment with Supreme Court battle

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisScalise bringing Donna Brazile as guest to Biden inauguration McConnell, Schumer fail to cut power-sharing deal amid filibuster snag Howard University's marching band to escort Harris at inauguration MORE (D-Calif.) is set to step into the spotlight as the fight over President TrumpDonald TrumpLil Wayne gets 11th hour Trump pardon Trump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon Trump expected to pardon Bannon: reports 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 GinsburgRuth Bader Ginsburg, George Floyd among options for 'Remember the Titans' school's new name Bipartisan anger builds over police failure at Capitol Lindsey Graham praises Merrick Garland as 'sound choice' to serve as attorney general 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 KavanaughHarris to resign from Senate seat on Monday Why we need Section 230 more than ever 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate 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.


But it could also pose risks as Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon Scalise bringing Donna Brazile as guest to Biden inauguration Sidney Powell withdraws 'kraken' lawsuit in Georgia MORE 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 Biden, 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.


“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 BarrTwo-thirds say the election was fair: poll The Hill's Morning Report - An inauguration like no other Barr told Trump that theories about stolen election were 'bulls---': report MORE in 2019 when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump 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.


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 BrownFacebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Biden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs Streamlining the process of prior authorization for medical and surgical procedures 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 DonnellyBiden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Harris walks fine line on Barrett as election nears The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Showdown: Trump-Biden debate likely to be nasty MORE (D-Ind.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampHarrison seen as front-runner to take over DNC at crucial moment Biden to tap Vilsack for Agriculture secretary: reports OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA guidance may exempt some water polluters from Supreme Court permit mandate | Vilsack's stock rises with Team Biden | Arctic wildfires linked to warming temperatures: NOAA 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.


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.