Even for Kamala Harris, glittery politician that she is, the rollout of her U.S. Senate campaign must’ve been heady stuff.
“Let me take just a moment to tell you what makes Kamala Harris so special,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts blogged, encouraging her national donor base to give to Harris.
“She’s exactly the kind of leader we need in the Senate,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, another prodigious fundraiser, said in an email urging her contributors to pivot toward Harris.
“So Excited about @KamalaHarris campaign for California US Senate seat,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker tweeted, inviting his 1.52 million followers to donate to Harris’ campaign.
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By the end of the first week, Harris had become the frontrunner to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is retiring in 2016. Harris’ aides worked hard to spin an air of invincibility. Enthusiastic press coverage fed into it.
“She has been dubbed the female Obama. She cooks. She goes to the gym in a hoodie,” The Guardian of the U.K. wrote. “She views lawyers as heroes and takes on mortgage companies the way Elizabeth Warren takes on Wall Street.”
There was, however, the question of issues.
Harris, sworn in for her second term as attorney general on Jan. 5, announced her Senate candidacy on Jan. 13 in a vacuous 240-word blurb in which she asked for money, and made no other public statements.
In the plea for money, Harris promised to fight crime, fight for consumers, fight for equal rights, fight for “the next generation,” fight for “middle class families who are feeling the pinch of stagnant wages,” fight “for our children,” and “fight relentlessly to protect our coast, our immigrant communities and our seniors.”
She listed many fights, but missed a few. There was no talk of fighting for the right to privacy or for national defense, or combating climate change, which many Democrats see as the defining issue of our time. Water policy evidently was not snappy enough.
Harris did her best to have a shock-and-awe opening, while Tom Steyer, the San Francisco billionaire environmentalist, toyed with entering the race by subjecting himself to an AMA, also known as an ask-me-anything, on Reddit.
Steyer was, indeed, asked all sorts of questions, from his choice of jelly with his peanut butter to his opinion of Mariah Carey, and his quirky choice of wearing the same plaid tie, day after day.
More to the point were the snarky and unscripted questions: When would he release his tax returns? How much money did he make from oil and coal when he ran Farallon Capital, the San Francisco hedge fund that made him rich. He answered some but not all the questions. It was a tough crowd, made tougher by its trollish anonymity.
Steyer gets points for engaging with whoever participates in such chats. He also got a glimpse into the flaming that awaits him if he enters the race.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles, also are contemplating a candidacy. Each could be formidable. A few Republicans have raised their hands, too, though California is Democratic territory.
Republican consultant Fred Davis, who has been involved in several presidential, Senate and gubernatorial races, said a Republican candidate would need $100 million and be able to campaign on the level of Ronald Reagan, or maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger, before he soiled his image.
Republicans won’t spend money in California in 2016, when they must defend Senate seats in several less expensive states. Whoever the Republican presidential candidate ends up being won’t spend a dime here after the primary.
“Nonstarter for Republicans,” Davis said.
Perhaps the race will turn into a free-for-all, and Harris will spend the next two years battling a half-dozen serious opponents. Certainly, many politicians would love to be one of 100 senators. But a Senate campaign is no small undertaking.
Boxer raised $29 million in her last race. A contested race in 2016 could cost $40 million, or more. It must be raised in increments of $2,600, the current federal cap on the amounts that individual donors can give.
Harris has been building toward high office for years. Making all the right friends, she presented Willie Brown with the cap that read “Da Mayor” on the night in 1995 when he was elected San Francisco mayor. She spent December 2007 knocking on doors in frigid Iowa for Sen. Barack Obama, when most political experts assumed Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee.
Harris is hoping to scare off any opponents, at least those who aren’t billionaires. She’s clearly willing to ask for money, though the $14.2 million she has raised since her first run for attorney general is not nearly sufficient for a Senate race.
It doesn’t hurt that she comes from San Francisco. San Francisco is her largest source of money, $2.9 million, plus $830,000 from the Silicon Valley.
Harris, who is married to a Los Angeles lawyer, spends much of her time in Los Angeles, which pays off. Los Angeles and Beverly Hills account for $2.4 million of her money. She has friended Hollywood, taking no less than $1.4 million from entertainers and corporations involved in “The Industry,” by my count.
Issues matter, too.
Bill Carrick, who has managed U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s campaigns, noted that a candidate needs to be prepared to face questions on as many issues as a presidential candidate: defense, trade, the Middle East, the debt ceiling, climate change, the right to privacy, wealth disparity, plus complex California issues such as water delivery.
“There are a lot of people displaced by the current economy,” Carrick said. “Income inequality, middle-class challenges, I think those issues are going to be really big.”
There will be time to talk about all those issues and more between now and Election Day 2016. There should plenty of debate, but only if there is a campaign, not a coronation.
Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.