Kamala Harris’s Rise And The California GOP’s Tumble: It’s An LA Story

Wednesday, June 17, 2020
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Ordinarily, I’m cautious when it comes to “short lists” of possible vice presidential nominees.

Sometimes, the speculators have it right: Virginia senator Tim Kaine was among those oft cited while Hillary Clinton was making up her mind in the summer of 2016.

Then again, who saw Sarah Palin coming down the pike eight years prior (here’s a list from back in 2008, with the former Alaska governor noticeably absent)?

In this election, the smart money seems to be on California senator Kamala Harris, one of six women who appear in most round-ups of Joe Biden’s thinking—Biden having committed to choosing a woman as a running mate back in mid-March, at the height of the Democratic primaries.

Harris’s pros and cons are another column in itself (personally, I’ve long seen her as an overrated commodity—long on style, but short on accomplishment).

Yes, the good senator is telegenic, possesses multiracial appeal (though she self-identifies as “American”), knows the grind of a national campaign as a failed presidential hopeful, and can handle herself on a debate stage, as Biden painfully discovered when she took him apart over the issue of federal busing during a particularly contentious debate exchange.

On the other hand, if Biden wants a California Democrat who embodies diversity and can speak to the party’s minority core on the complicated topic of race and policing (a tricky subject for Harris, given her past as a prosecutor), there may be a better choice: Rep. Karen Bass, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Democrats’ lead spokesperson on policing reform.

Let us now engage in some more speculation: Harris not only becoming Biden’s running mate but going on to serve as vice president and, four to eight years later, becoming the next Democratic presidential nominee.

The question will be asked: why was she able to reach such lofty heights?

The answer: because Republicans can’t compete in Los Angeles County.

Before her current position as California’s junior US senator, Kamala Harris served a term and a half (six years) as California’s state attorney general. Harris was first elected to that post in 2010, winning by a difference of just 74,157 votes out of more than 9.64 million ballots cast (margin of victory: 0.8%).

Why was it such a close call for Harris while the other Democrats on the statewide slate each  cleared 50%?

Yes, Harris drew a tough rival in Steve Cooley, who had served as Los Angeles County’s district attorney for over a decade prior to running to become California’s “top cop.” Moreover, Cooley depicted Harris was a San Francisco liberal lax on punishment, whereas he advertised himself as a competent prosecutor, not an overzealous hack.

However, Cooley couldn’t close the deal in the one part of California where, ironically, he had a built-in advantage in terms of name recognition: Los Angeles County.

In 2010, voters in Los Angeles County cast a little more than 2.2 million ballots in the AG’s race, or nearly 23% of all votes cast statewide for that office.

Harris received 53.4% of LA County’s vote—six points better than she did statewide. That translated to a difference of 314,000 votes, or more than four times her overall margin of victory statewide.

As Cooley needed just 74,000-plus votes in the entire state to win the contest, had he boosted his performance in his resident Los Angeles County from 39.2% to 42.5%—just three points less than the statewide performance—he, not Kamala Harris, would have been elected as California’s attorney general.

And Joe Biden’s “short list” might look quite different.

Beginning with the 2010 election and including the statewide votes four and eight years later, no Republican gubernatorial hopeful has failed to clear 33.2% in Los Angeles County (Meg Whitman’s atrocious 32.3% effort in the county certainly did Cooley no favors). The high-water mark for the two Republican AG candidates after Steve Cooley is 33.1%.

Carrying that county isn’t a realistic goal for California Republicans—even Arnold Schwarzenegger, running as a sitting governor and one of the most recognizable Angelenos on the planet—received only 46.1% of the county vote in that election, However, Schwarzenegger received 158,480 more county votes than did Whitman in the subsequent election, or double the gap that Cooley needed to make up in order to defeat Harris.

For California Republicans, this presents a choice: either clone the former “Governator” (indeed, the plot of one of his movies), or take note of the current climate in California’s most populous county.

If Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti makes good on his proposal to reduce the Los Angeles Police Department’s operating budget, plus the county sees a spike in the crime rate (which may come naturally once pandemic restrictions are lifted, but could worsen thanks to more lax parole policies), then Republicans could rethink what was effective 25 years ago: linking a law-and-order theme to quality-of-life issues.

On that note, it might be time for California Republicans to bring Richard Riordan back into the conversation.

The former Los Angeles mayor—the last Republican to hold that job—first ran in 1993 on his credentials as a businessman and philanthropist and as an organizer of two political causes: in 1986, ousting State Supreme Court Chief justice Rose Bird and, in 1990, a crime victims’ “bill of rights” initiative that toughened the state’s crime laws (it received 57% support).

What Riordan discovered was a winning message—create more businesses, hire more police—that resonated in the more conservative San Fernando Valley but also appealed to middle-class Asian and Hispanic voters.

This is not to suggest that what worked for one first-time Republican candidate in 1993 is a magic elixir that cures an ailing party. But it is an example of matching a message with the moment.

And should crime begin to soar in California once society resumes at a pace more ordinary, thanks in part to rolling back policing and legal statutes, then that moment might be closer than the public realizes.