Kamala Harris: culture warrior? VP embraces fight with DeSantis as GOP primary heats up

WASHINGTON – Vice President Kamala Harris is embracing a new role as the Republican presidential primary kicks into high gear: culture warrior.

Inspired by the traction that her fight against reproductive restrictions gained in the midterms, the Biden campaign says the vice president will zero-in on abortion, voting rights and guns in the coming months. 

Harris will rebuke GOP presidential candidates for positions on cultural issues when she believes they’ve crossed a line, her campaign chief of staff said in an interview, much like she did with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on his state’s slavery curriculum.

“She’s a fighter,” said Sheila Nix, who was Joe Biden’s campaign chief of staff when he was vice president and is currently advising Harris. “She’s not afraid to call out extremism. So she’s going to drive actions and hold Republicans accountable, and then they’re forced to respond.”

The approach has yielded some early success for Harris, who has struggled to mold the vice presidency in a role that works to her political advantage. After she traveled to DeSantis’ home state last month to blast Florida’s education guidelines, Black Republicans and several GOP presidential contenders piled on him, too.

But the attacks have been deliberate, coming in pre-written remarks, before mostly friendly audiences, where she is sure to attract applause. Her calculated approach to campaigning frequently involves moderated conversations conducted by Democratic activists in settings where she is unlikely to be goaded into veering off message.

During one such conversation in Iowa, Harris did not mention DeSantis or the slavery dispute, even though the Florida governor was due to be in the same city that day to speak at a GOP cattle call.

Harris’ recent travel has included a mix of battleground states such as Wisconsin, where she delivered remarks on high-speed internet in Milwaukee and appeared at campaign fundraisers on Thursday. 

Vice President Kamala Harris talks about Florida's new history teaching standards during an appearance Friday at Jacksonville;'s Ritz Theatre and Museum.

She also visited Florida last week to deliver remarks at the African Methodist Episcopal Women’s Missionary Convention in Orlando. The visit coincided with an offer from DeSantis to meet in Tallahassee to discuss the Black history dustup.

There, she forcefully declared, “There is no roundtable, no lecture, no invitation we will accept to debate an undeniable fact: There were no redeeming qualities of slavery.”

“And as I said last week when I was again here in Florida: We will not stop calling out and fighting back against extremist so-called leaders who try to prevent our children from learning our true and full history,” she said, without mentioning DeSantis by name.

Harris intentionally visited Jacksonville in July to meet with elected officials, teachers and civil rights leaders in a historically Black neighborhood and deride the state’s newly-released African American history standards.

Going “toe-to-toe” over culture

Her crusade against Black history guidelines in Florida is drawing praise from other Democrats who want to see their party’s leaders push back harder on efforts by Republican presidential candidates to reshape American culture.

“You have to go toe-to-toe with them,” said Marc Morial, a civil rights leader who is close to the White House and the National Urban League’s president and CEO.

Criticizing what he described as an effort by some Republicans to win the next election by dividing the country, Morial said, “People call it culture wars. Culture is really just a proxy term for race, gender and gender identity.”

Some of the vice president’s allies are reluctant to use the terms “wokeism” or “culture wars” to describe issues such as national abortion bans and transgender military service that a subset of the Republican presidential field are campaigning on.

Terminology aside, Democrats say Harris has an opportunity to highlight GOP candidates’ positions on social issues that public polling suggests will not work to their advantage in a general election.

“You might as well get them on record, and put them on the defensive, because Republicans only dig in even more on these issues, in the context of a Republican primary,” said former Harris campaign manager Brian Brokaw. “I think it’s smart politics, and she’s a good messenger on the issues that she has been deployed to focus on.”

Harris has reshuffled her office and her portfolio multiple times since she became vice president. Her allies say the latest iteration plays to her strengths as a former prosecutor and state attorney general. Ahead of the midterm election, she jumped in to support abortion rights as the Supreme Court prepared to reverse Roe.

But none of the issues she’s tackled so far have had as pronounced an effect as her showdown with DeSantis over his defense of the state’s description of slavery.

Florida’s social studies standards advise that “slaves developed skills, which in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

DeSantis argued that he did not write the guidelines but has repeatedly offered his support for them. He told Harris in a letter last week that the Biden administration had “repeatedly disparaged our state and misinformed Americans” about the state’s African American history standards.

Biden has also spoken out. But as an Black woman, Harris has lived experiences, Democrats say, that allow her to address the issue in a very direct way.

“And you can’t lose sight of that. She’s not talking about some third party, she’s talking about herself, her own family, her own upbringing, her own lived experiences,” Morial said. “And with many of these issues, that’s an important dynamic.”

Energizing lethargic Democrats

Biden does not face stiff opposition for the Democratic nomination and has not been campaigning, even though he announced his reelection bid more than three months ago. He has participated in allied groups’ events and fundraised heavily, but he has selectively focused on using official events to promote his economic agenda.

Democrats worry about voter lethargy, as Republicans and independents tune into the other party’s primary, and say that Harris’ emphasis on cultural issues is helping to energize the party’s base.

Although the vice president has a 42% overall favorability rating, 77% of Democrats approve of the way she’s handling her job, in a new CNN poll. She has an approval rating of 72% among African Americans.

Harris may not be changing independent voters’ minds, Democrats say, but she is engaging hardcore liberals, demonstrating her value to the ticket and filling a void while Biden runs the country.

“When we hit general election season, when the president actually knows who he will be campaigning against, I really think it’s both of them that should be out there on these issues,” MoveOn executive director Rahna Epting said.

Hailing Harris’ focus on slavery and abortion rights in the meantime, Epting added, “But let’s make no mistake: the role has to be executed carefully. Republicans are trying to set traps for Democrats left and right and everywhere we go.”

DeSantis has sought to capitalize on his fight with Harris, using it to draw attention to his campaign and Biden’s age.

“I thank her,” DeSantis said, according to NBC. “I mean, the more that it’s me versus Harris, because ultimately if you look at the next election, she’s going to be the VP, you know, it’s possible she could end up being president of the United States. And I think voters need to take a hard look at that and see if that’s something that they would want.”

Former Harris communications director Ashley Etienne said she viewed the trip to Jacksonville as a “risky” one given Republican presidential candidates’ focus on the vice president in the 2024 election.

“But it was one that she had to take, because the president needs from her not to just have a moment but to really catch fire. And these are the types of issues that she could get the base fired up on,” Etienne said.

Biden and Harris also have a responsibility as role models to make sure that what students are learning is accurate, National Education Association president Becky Pringle said.

“Whether or not it feels as though…they’re taking a risk of some sort by doing that, they’re doing what is right. And in this moment, we absolutely need our president and vice president to be speaking on these issues,” Pringle said.

Calculated campaigning by Harris

Harris’ decisions of when and how to tangle with Republicans have been calculated. She often refers to “so-called leaders” in her remarks without referring to GOP politicians by name.

On her trip last month to Iowa, while DeSantis and most of the Republican field were in the state, she participated in a moderated conversation on abortion that her office said was attended by health care providers, patients, local leaders, and advocates.

In her remarks, Harris accused the GOP of pursuing a “national agenda that is about a full-on attack” on Americans’ freedoms and brought up voting, gun violence and LGBTQ+ rights. But she did not refer to DeSantis or their dispute over educational standards. 

In contrast, he took direct aim at her in his remarks.

Harris’ campaign chief of staff said the vice president’s event focused on abortion because Iowa had just passed a six-week ban. 

“That is an issue that she’s spent a lot of time talking about and wanted to make sure that we were raising that issue, as well, ahead of the Republican debate,” Nix said.

The state has more registered Republicans than Democrats and went for former President Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections.

Iowa Democratic Party chair Rita Hart said that efforts to control curriculum and not teach history accurately are a “real problem.” But she said, “That’s not happening here in Iowa.”

“And we’ve got to make sure that it doesn’t happen here in Iowa,” she said. “But the things that really matter to folks are making sure that people have the quality of life — that they can have the confidence that we have a future here in Iowa, that our children can live here and raise good families and have the confidence that these culture wars are not going to dominate the day.”

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