Republicans dismiss Harris at their peril

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President Trump, who knows a thing or two about big crowds and patriotic backdrops, gave credit where it was due last week to U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris for the rollout of her presidential campaign before a crowd of 20,000 outside Oakland City Hall.

Compared to other Democrats, the president told the New York Times, she had “a better crowd — better crowd, better enthusiasm. Some of the others were very flat.”

Though the president mangled the pronunciation of Harris’ first name, his pronouncement suggested he was the latest politician to see what the California GOP learned a decade ago: Harris is not a campaigner to be taken lightly.

That knowledge first hit California Republicans during Harris’ 2010 race for attorney general. She was the young, anti-death-penalty district attorney from lefty San Francisco, running uphill against an old-school Republican, Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. But it was much more than a San Francisco-L.A., Democratic-Republican battle.

Nationally, 2010 was the year of the tea party when Republicans swept Democrats from control of Congress and captured several statehouses. In California, it was also the first year the attorney general’s office drew widespread national attention.

Part of the reason was that the Virginia-based Republican State Leadership Committee, then led by Ed Gillespie, former counselor to President George W. Bush, targeted the race. The group spent $31.7 million trying to flip control of state offices to Republican hands that year. Its one California expenditure was a $1-million television ad featuring the mother of a slain San Francisco police officer denouncing Harris for not seeking the death penalty against the officer’s killer.

At the time, the committee’s spokesman told me that the group hoped a Republican attorney general in California would provide an important “firewall” against the Obama administration. Harris’ defeat would have had an added benefit of derailing a rising Democratic star: “If that is a byproduct of defeating her, we’re perfectly happy with that,” the spokesman said.

Harris had her friends, too, however, most notably Barack Obama.

Harris joined the Obama camp early. In 2004, while serving as San Francisco district attorney, she co-hosted a fundraiser for Obama in his Illinois run for the U.S. Senate. The following year, he packed Bimbo’s nightclub in San Francisco for a Harris fundraiser.

In 2007, Harris trudged through the Des Moines snow campaigning on presidential candidate Obama’s behalf, an act not without political risk. Hillary Clinton was then the front-runner, and California was Clinton turf.

“That was probably not the right political calculation at the time,” said Buffy Wicks, who worked as Obama’s California organizer in 2007.

It was, however, prescient. And in the end, Obama more than repaid Harris’ support.

In October 2010, after Gillespie’s ad began airing, Obama turned out for a Harris fundraiser at the Atherton home of former state Controller Steve Westly. As the campaign closed, organized labor aired an ad produced by one of Obama’s consultants featuring Harris with Obama, who told viewers he had endorsed her.

Republicans gained six state attorney general seats on election night in 2010, and nearly won a seventh. In California, Harris was having a “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment. Like that infamous 1948 headline proclaiming incorrectly that Harry Truman had lost the presidency to Thomas Dewey, a headline on the San Francisco Chronicle’s website declared: “Cooley beats Harris to win attorney general race.”

Two weeks later, however, when all 9.6 million votes were counted, that turned out not to be true. Harris had won by 0.7%. The Republican wave of 2010 stopped at the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

A framed copy of the Cooley-defeats-Harris headline survives on her campaign consultant’s office wall in downtown San Francisco. That consultant? Ace Smith. Smith ran Clinton’s 2008 campaign in California, then joined Harris’ team, running her races for attorney general in 2010 and 2014, U.S. Senate in 2016, and, now, for the highest office in the land.

Harris’ candidacy is certainly a long-shot for 2020. But, as Trump seemed to acknowledge last week, she is not a campaigner who can simply be ignored.

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