Voices: Kamala Harris is hitting the trail at last – here’s why the White House kept her off the stage

Election 2022 New York Governor (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Election 2022 New York Governor (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

With four days left in the campaign, Democrats are beginning their final effort to salvage not just their House and Senate majorities, but governors, state legislatures and tons of other candidates struggling up and down the ballot.

President Joe Biden spent Thursday campaigning in California’s 49th District for Democratic Representative Mike Levin, who is in a tougher race than expected. A Democratic loss in the 49th wouldn’t just mean losing the House majority; it would signal a blowout defeat.

Biden will make his way to his home state of Pennsylvania this weekend to campaign alongside his former boss, Barack Obama, for Senate nominee John Fetterman and gubernatorial nominee Josh Shaprio. Obama will make an additional stop of his own in Pittsburgh,the latest stop on his “Don’t Boo, Vote” tour. (We will be on hand to give you all the updates.)

But while Obama and Biden traverse the country, one major figure has taken a diminished role: Vice President Kamala Harris.

Case in point: Barack Obama headed to Georgia last week to campaign for Senator Raphael Warnock, one of his party’s most endangered incumbents. But Harris has only just begun hosting virtual get-out-the-vote efforts for Warnock – whose 2021 victory gave Harris tie-breaking power in the Senate – today. She’s doing the same for Judge Linda Hidalgo of Harris County, Texas, and Iowa Democratic gubernatorial nominee Deidre DeJear. Hidalgo is seen as a rising star (after all, Texas Democrats can’t keep trotting out Beto O’Rourke forever), but her prospects this year mean she risks seeing her bright future dashed.

Meanwhile, Harris is keeping her distance even from longtime friends. She’s not going to Nevada to defend Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (we keep telling you it will come down to the Silver State). The two women forged a friendship while serving as attorneys general for California and Nevada respectively, during which time they sued the big banks after the housing crisis during the Great Recession. One of their few allies was Delaware attorney general Beau Biden, the now-president’s late son — which led to hurt feelings after Harris’s broadside against her future boss in their first 2019 primary debate.

Nor is Harris going to New Hampshire to defend her friend Senator Maggie Hassan, who won by only a little more than 1,000 votes in 2016. Instead, the vice president popped up in neighboring Massachusetts, where Attorney General Maura Healey is all but guaranteed to win the governorship. The incumbent Republican governor, Charlie Baker, one of the most popular executives in the country, opted not to seek a third term and Massachusetts Republicans in their infinite wisdom nominated the pro-Trump Geoff Diehl.

That isn’t to say that Harris isn’t pitching in on any tough races. On Thursday, she and Hillary Clinton joined Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul of New York, who is facing a tougher than expected race against Republican Representative Lee Zeldin as he fights hard to pin her down on crime. Ironically, in 2020, many progressives bristled at Harris’s supposedly tough-on-crime record as San Francisco District Attorney and attorney general for the state of California. Now that same record might actually help Democrats now, as Republicans paint Democrats as the party that wants to defund the police.

But New York aside, Harris has effectively been kept in the wings. Part of the logic will be the simple fact that she is less popular than Biden and Obama, meaning she might act as a drag for Democratic candidates just as they try to separate themselves from unpopular elements of the Biden administration. (Example: During one of Ohio’s Senate debates, Tim Ryan refuted Harris’s claim that the border is secure.)

In fairness, there is little Harris can do to fix her approval rating or the fact that she is historically unpopular at this moment. The vice presidency is by design an unglamorous office, limited as it is by the power the president deigns to grant their deputy at any given moment. And Harris was always going to also have a rough go at it, given the extra scrutiny a Black female politician faces.

But this could also be a time for her to build relationships on the trail for if she ever decides to make another White House run. Campaigning down the ballot is not just about helping Democrats win; it’s also about making sure elected officials owe the administration favors. She need look no further than her boss for proof of that, himself a former vice president who built friendships campaigning in the Obama administration’s difficult midterms – and who is trying hard to cash in on them now.

We’ll be on the road this weekend in Pittsburgh for the final weekend before the elections. Sign up for Inside Washington here to see what we learned.