When former Sen. Chris Dodd, a member of Joe Biden’s vice presidential search committee, recently asked Kamala Harris about her ambush on Biden in the first Democratic debate, Dodd was stunned by her response.
“She laughed and said, ‘that’s politics.’ She had no remorse,” Dodd told a longtime Biden supporter and donor, who relayed the exchange to POLITICO on condition of anonymity.
“Dodd felt it was a gimmick, that it was cheap,” the donor said. The person added that Dodd’s concerns about Harris were so deep that he’s helped elevate California Rep. Karen Bass during the vetting process, urging Biden to pick her because “she’s a loyal No. 2. And that’s what Biden really wants.” Through an aide, Dodd declined to comment. Advisers to Harris also declined to comment.
Harris, a California senator who has built a national following as a leading combatant against the Trump administration, has been seen as a likely Biden VP even before he started running. More than a year later, despite a campaign that didn’t even make it to the first nominating contests, Harris still appears to be in the pole position for the post: Interviews with more than four dozen elected officials, strategists, former Biden advisers and plugged-in donors said they think Harris is the closest Biden has to a “do no harm” option.
And people in three other competing camps privately said that while their candidates have a shot for VP, Harris is more likely to get the nod.
Yet with Biden set to make his decision as soon as the beginning of August, there are still hang-ups over Harris — largely over the matter of trust.
Former high-ranking Democratic Party officials and elected officials have expressed concerns about her to the vetting committee in recent weeks, according to four sources who’ve spoken to the Biden vetting team.
The interviews for this article revealed a contingent of Democrats who are lobbying against Harris for VP — some privately, some openly. Several California Democrats who spoke to Biden’s vetting team have shared glowing reviews of Bass, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a former state Assembly speaker. Others touted Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who earned a Purple Heart in combat, and former national security adviser Susan Rice, whom they came to know though her connections to Stanford University in the Bay Area.
“I don’t think Kamala Harris has it in the bag,” said former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), reacting to the dozens of Democrats who believe Harris is the likely pick. Reid, who speaks frequently with Dodd, met with Harris recently and said he thinks highly of her.
It’s difficult to overstate the bad blood that flowed between the Harris and Biden campaigns immediately after that June 2019 debate. Harris opened her attack on Biden by saying, “I know you’re not a racist.” She then accused Biden of giving segregationist senators a pass and opposing a federal busing program in the 1970s that integrated schools she attended as a child. “That little girl was me,” she said.
The campaign quickly branded the phrase on T-shirts and boasted about its preparations for what became Harris’ big moment. Eventually, however, Biden gained the upper hand when Harris admitted she had essentially the same view on busing as he did.
A contingent of Bay Area donors has publicly endorsed Duckworth, snubbing their home-state senator. They include Susie Buell, who was early to endorse Harris’ presidential run but drifted from her campaign to also back Pete Buttigieg in the primary, and attorney Joe Cotchett, a Biden loyalist who was a major fundraiser for Barack Obama.
Both Buell and Cotchett lauded Duckworth’s war-hero status. Cotchett said in an interview that he feared Harris’ time as a prosecutor would end up harming the ticket. While Buell supports Duckworth, she said she didn’t necessarily have reservations about Harris and trusted Biden to make the best choice.
While some of Harris’ detractors say they’re still concerned about her record as California attorney general, others who interacted with her earlier in her career told the Biden team they’re wary of how she would conduct herself as a No. 2.
Still, others have raised concerns about Harris’ presidential campaign itself, which launched with great promise before 22,000 people, but steadily lost ground. Harris dropped out a month before the Iowa caucuses.
“Look for someone who does no harm,” former California Democratic Party Chair John Burton said he told Dodd. Burton said he worried President Donald Trump and GOP allies would weaponize Harris’ clash with Biden on the debate stage over race.
Despite those question marks, there are compelling reasons why Harris hasn’t budged from the top of Biden VP lists.
No other contender matches her experience as someone who was elected three times statewide in the largest state in the nation and has gone through the wringer of a presidential campaign. As the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, she would be a historic selection.
Her prosecutorial chops inspire confidence that she would hold her own, and then some, against Vice President Mike Pence in a debate. She was close with Biden’s late son Beau, a fact that might help offset lingering doubts about the busing attack.
One former Biden adviser described Harris as “Tier 1,” while “everyone else is Tier 1B.” The person added, “All of those other people, they have the challenge of the Harris bar — it is just so high. She checks everything that’s so important to him.”
Doug Herman, a Democratic strategist in Los Angeles who headed a pro-Harris super PAC when she ran for Senate in 2016, said “it’d be hard to bet against” Harris.
“There may be some drawbacks from what transpired in the debates, but she makes a strong addition to the ticket,” he said. “The flip of this is that historically it’s the dark-horse candidates who have ended up getting picked, and folks don’t see it coming because they are focused on the odds-on favorite.”
Reid said Biden has not made up his mind. Harris, he said, is among a group of women who remain under consideration, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Though Harris does not have the VP position locked up, Reid said Biden is “too much of a gentleman” to hold the debate incident against her.
Harris declined an interview request about the search, as she has throughout the VP process. But her allies have been trying to convey to Biden’s team and publicly that beyond her own appeal, she could be a trusted partner. They point to the scores of endorsements she landed from current home-state officials.
“She is somebody who has always loved to campaign and work on behalf of other people—going back to her earliest campaigning for state Sen. Barack Obama. She’s often more comfortable talking up others rather than herself,” said Brian Brokaw, a Democratic strategist who managed Harris’ runs for state attorney general.
Democratic strategist Karen Finney said Harris holds an advantage after having already built a national profile by running for president.
“The reality is you have a short period of time and you’re trying to win the election,” Finney said of Harris’ edge over others. “How you do it is also challenging, given the Covid reality. You’re not able to do the big rally” to introduce a new face to the nation.
Carla Marinucci contributed to this report.