Kamala Harris wasn’t picked for geographic reasons. But in the perpetual power struggle between the East and West, her ascent carried all the signs of a rebalancing.
For the first time since Ronald Reagan, a Californian is on a major party presidential ticket — the first time ever for a California Democrat. And as Harris was introduced by Joe Biden as his running mate last week, the West reveled in the prospect of newfound relevance.
“The Northeast has basically run America since its inception,” said Gray Davis, the former California governor. But California “is going to be a big part of charting America’s future,” he said, expecting Harris’ rise to “accelerate the speed with which ideas move West to East.”
It is easy to see how that might happen. If Biden beats Donald Trump and Harris becomes vice president, California’s massive technology, science and entertainment enterprises will gain a more familiar ear in the White House than they’ve had in decades. Even before taking office, Harris would help Biden stand up a government with a Rolodex compiled in the West.
That’s only the beginning. Harris is just 55. To the extent that California’s political arc is reflected in her trajectory, it is likely to outlast her tenure as vice president. Fourteen vice presidents have gone on to become president, and Biden — despite previous failed runs such as Harris now has behind her — entered the 2020 primary as a favorite almost singularly because of the name recognition and goodwill he built as Barack Obama’s No. 2.
Harris, likewise, will almost certainly be considered a frontrunner in the next contested presidential primary, whether in 2024 or 2028.
It would be hard to be so bullish on the West if Harris wasn’t drawing such feverish public attention and helping Biden to raise millions of dollars in her first days on the ticket. The vice presidency itself, as John Nance Garner once reputedly put it, isn’t “worth a pitcher of warm piss.” And even a president from California could not fully level a power structure that has always bent toward the East.
The nation’s media and political centers are on the East Coast. Time zone differences force bleary-eyed politicians in the West to rise at 3 a.m. for morning television hits. Flights to Washington are long, and direct flights to other important cities are hard to come by.
For California politicians, in particular, there is the state’s own limited attention span for politics to overcome. Before Trump’s election, it was easier for many House members from Los Angeles to get on MSNBC than the local news.
For most people in California, said Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic strategist and adviser to former California Sen. Barbara Boxer, Harris’ predecessor, where the vice president comes from is likely not “top on the list of their concerns.”
But Harris may be uniquely qualified to straddle the Western and the Eastern reaches of the United States. She was as much a national figure as a Californian even before a presidential run that Californians, like Democrats elsewhere, never warmed to. Harris was called the “female Barack Obama” as long ago as 2010, when she first ran for California attorney general.
Her rise to prominence in the Senate came as an adversary to Trump, not as a guardian of the state’s more parochial concerns.
If Harris truly is the “last voice in the room,” as Biden suggested she would be when he introduced her in Delaware on Wednesday, her influence — and California’s — could be profound. Reagan brought Caspar Weinberger, Ed Meese and Lyn Nofziger from California to Washington. And in heavily Democratic California, there are far more Democrats where those figures came from.
“California has been too often irrelevant in national politics since Ronald Reagan left in 1988,” said Ace Smith, who was a top strategist on Harris’ presidential campaign.
“With a major Californian ascending in a national office, that just has ripple effects,” he said. “My prediction: More Californians in higher positions in the coming decades than you’ve seen literally since the Reagan era.”
In California this week, Democratic politicians who disliked Harris resigned themselves to her success, privately recasting their criticisms of her in more favorable lights. Those who have supported her for years saw their prospects improve. Everyone imagined a Washington that might not sneer at the state’s energy or water challenges, or suggest its wildfires could be prevented by raking.
Describing what he called a Washington “prejudice against California” — a recoiling from the state’s economic and cultural status in the world — Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said, “I think with a vice president from California, you’re not going to see that kind of disinterest or disdain for the West.”
“We’ve always had, at least in the last half-century, tremendous legislative power,” Schiff said. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, among other influential lawmakers, come from California. “But what we’ve lacked is power in the executive branch, and with Kamala, we will now have both.”
It’s not just California poised to gain influence if Biden and Harris win. Though the state is hardly representative of every state west of the Rockies, it does anchor the liberal coast. In Washington, Jamal Raad, a veteran Democratic strategist who advised that state’s governor, Jay Inslee, in his presidential campaign last year, said, “It’s frankly preposterous that it’s taken this long for someone from the West to be chosen for the ticket.”
For Republicans, the idea of a California Democrat in the White House is a nightmare. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel called Harris “an extreme San Francisco liberal,” recalling years of criticism in which Republicans have put down Democrats by yoking them to the liberal reputation of the state.
But even that practice is no longer as effective for the GOP as it was a decade ago, when California was in the throes of its budget crisis and its liberal approach to issues such as gay marriage and marijuana were not so broadly accepted elsewhere.
In a tacit acknowledgment of the changing landscape, Trump campaign officials privately expressed before Harris’ selection that they would have preferred Biden pick another contender. Susan Rice, the former national security adviser, would have allowed Trump to relitigate the Benghazi scandal, a major feature of the 2016 presidential campaign. A more progressive selection, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, would have done more than Harris’ California pedigree to paint Biden as beholden to the party’s left flank.
Geography certainly didn’t factor into Biden’s thinking. California is so heavily Democratic that Biden could have carried the state in November with a stuffed animal as his running mate. And though campaign strategists have largely abandoned the idea that a vice presidential nominee can deliver a major battleground state, had Biden thought he needed a geographical lift, he could have selected Rep. Val Demings of Florida, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan or Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.
Instead, California got Harris. And if she becomes vice president, said Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, “We’ll have somebody in the White House.”
“I think it’ll benefit California,” he said. “This is her base.”