WASHINGTON — In early November, a few days after Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign announced widespread layoffs and an intensified focus on Iowa, her senior aides gathered for a staff meeting at their Baltimore headquarters and pelted campaign manager Juan Rodriguez with questions.
What exactly was Harris’ new strategy? How much money and manpower could they put into Iowa? What would their presence be like in other early voting states?
Rodriguez offered general, tentative answers that didn’t satisfy the room, according to two campaign officials directly familiar with the conversation. Some Harris aides sitting at the table could barely suppress their fury about what they saw as the undoing of a once-promising campaign. Their feelings were reflected days later by Kelly Mehlenbacher, the state operations director, in a blistering resignation letter obtained by The New York Times.
“This is my third presidential campaign and I have never seen an organization treat its staff so poorly,” Mehlenbacher wrote, assailing Rodriguez and Harris’ sister, Maya, the campaign chairwoman, for laying off aides with no notice. “With less than 90 days until Iowa we still do not have a real plan to win.”
The 2020 Democratic field has been defined by its turbulence, with some contenders rising, others dropping out and two more jumping in just this month. Yet there is only one candidate who rocketed to the top tier and then plummeted in early state polls to the low single digits: Harris.
From those polling results to Harris’ campaign operation, fundraising and debate performances, it has been a remarkable comedown for a senator from the country’s largest state, a politician with star power who was compared to President Barack Obama even before Californians elected her to the Senate in 2016.
Yet, even to some Harris allies, her decline is more predictable than surprising. In one instance after another, Harris and her closest advisers made flawed decisions about which states to focus on, issues to emphasize and opponents to target, all while refusing to make difficult personnel choices to impose order on an unwieldy campaign, according to more than 50 current and former campaign staff members and allies, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose private conversations and assessments involving the candidate.
Many of her own advisers are now pointing a finger directly at Harris. In interviews several of them criticized her for going on the offensive against rivals, only to retreat, and for not firmly choosing a side in the party’s ideological feud between liberals and moderates. She also created an organization with a campaign chairwoman, Maya Harris, who goes unchallenged in part because she is Harris’ sister, and a manager, Rodriguez, who could not be replaced without likely triggering the resignations of the candidate’s consulting team. Even at this late date, aides said it’s unclear who’s in charge of the campaign.
With just over two months until the Iowa caucuses, her staff is now riven between competing factions eager to belittle one another, and the candidate’s relationship with Rodriguez has turned frosty, according to multiple Democrats close to Harris. Several aides, including Jalisa Washington-Price, state director in crucial South Carolina, have already had conversations about post-campaign jobs.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who has endorsed Harris and is a former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that the senator was an exceptional candidate who had been poorly served by some top staff and who must fire Rodriguez. But she also acknowledged that Harris bore a measure of responsibility for her problems — “it’s her campaign” — and that the structure she created has not served her well.
“I have told her there needs to be a change,” said Fudge, one of several women of color who have been delivering hard-to-hear advice to Harris in recent weeks. “The weakness is at the top. And it’s clearly Juan. He needs to take responsibility — that’s where the buck stops.”
Harris declined an interview request for this article.
Rodriguez, in a statement, said: “Our team, from the candidate to organizers across the country, are working day in and out to make sure Kamala is the nominee to take on Donald Trump and end the national nightmare that is his presidency. Just like every campaign, we have made tough decisions to have the resources we need to place in Iowa and springboard into the rest of the primary calendar.”
Harris is reluctant to make a leadership change within her campaign so late in the race, some aides say, but they describe her as clear-eyed about the mistakes she has made and the difficulty of her task ahead. They say she has bought into focusing on Iowa, where her campaign has structured more one-on-one settings for her to woo supporters or at least enjoy herself in otherwise difficult days.
But her troubles go beyond staffing and strategy: Her financial predicament is dire. The campaign has not taken a poll or been able to afford TV advertising since September, and it has all but quit buying Facebook ads in the last two months. Her advisers, after months of resistance, have only now signaled their desire for a group of former aides to begin a super PAC to finance an independent political effort on her behalf.
To some Democrats who know Harris, her struggles indicate larger limitations.
“You can’t run the country if you can’t run your campaign,” said Gil Duran, a former aide to Harris and other California Democrats who’s now the editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee.
Some of her problems have been beyond her control. Health care policy and the identity of the Democratic Party became much-debated issues this year, but she had never given the details of either matter extensive thought as she rose from local prosecutor to California attorney general to the Senate. And her supporters believe that as a black woman, Harris has run into difficulty with some voters over one of the defining issues of the race: assumptions about who can and cannot defeat President Donald Trump.
Harris is now attempting a pivot, taking a less scripted approach to campaigning. On a conference call with donors after the last debate in mid-November, Jim Margolis, a senior campaign adviser, pointed to her improved performance as a case study in letting “Kamala be Kamala,” according to one person who participated in the call — a reference to Harris’ strengths when she is listening to her competitors’ comments and reacting freely.
It was her abundant political skills — strong on the stump, a warm manner with voters and ferocity with the opposition that seemed to spell trouble for Trump — that convinced many Democrats of Harris’ potential.
Yet it has come to this: After beginning her candidacy with a speech before 20,000 people in Oakland, some of Harris’ longtime supporters believe she should consider dropping out in late December — the deadline for taking her name off the California primary ballot — if she does not show political momentum. Some advisers are already bracing for a primary challenge, potentially from billionaire Tom Steyer, should she run for reelection to the Senate in 2022. Her senior aides plan to assess next month whether she’s made sufficient progress to remain in the race.
“For her to lose California would be really hard and it’s not looking good,” said Susie Buell, a longtime Harris donor from the Bay Area.
A team of rivals with no clear message
The fact that Harris is now banking on an Iowa-or-bust strategy highlights a major strategic miscalculation early on that set her off on the wrong track.
When she entered the race in January, she bet that the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire would matter less to her political fortunes than South Carolina, with its predominantly black Democratic electorate. In this view, a strong showing in South Carolina, which votes fourth, would vault her into racially diverse Super Tuesday states like California that would propel her candidacy.
So for much of the year, she focused on competing against Joe Biden in South Carolina and beyond. What her campaign did not anticipate was that Biden would remain strong with many black voters, and that Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg would rise as threats in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Then there was Harris’ campaign message. Extensive polling led her to believe that there was great value in the word “truth,” so she titled her 2019 memoir “The Truths We Hold” and made a similar phrase the centerpiece of her early stump speech: “Let’s speak truth.” But she dropped the saying out of a belief that voters wanted something less gauzy.
Her assumptions about the issues that would inspire Democrats were also muddled: she began running on a tax cut aimed at lower- and middle-income voters and then turned to a pay raise for teachers.
But those proposals also did little to animate voters, especially those riveted by the ambitious policies of Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, and before long Harris was downplaying what were her signature proposals.
For a time, she sought to highlight a pragmatic agenda, about matters she said voters thought about while lying awake at 3 a.m. Today, her aides are given to gallows humor about just how many slogans and one-liners she has cycled through, with one recalling how “‘speak truth’ spring” gave way to “‘3 a.m.’ summer” before the current, Trump-focused “‘justice’ winter.”
From the start, the campaign structure seemed ripe for conflict. Harris divided her campaign between two coasts, basing her operation in Baltimore but retaining some key advisers in the Bay Area. She bifurcated the leadership between two decidedly different loyalists: her sister, the chair, and Rodriguez, a trusted lieutenant who had managed her 2016 Senate campaign. Rodriguez was a central figure at the San Francisco-based consulting firm, SCRB, that had helped direct Harris’ rise for a decade; all of the firm’s partners were lined up to advise the presidential race.
The two camps were soon competing, each stocked with people who shared a tight bond with Harris but who regarded each other with suspicion or worse. The setup cost Harris opportunities to recruit some of her party’s most sought-after outside strategists and left her reliant on a team less experienced in national politics than in California, an overwhelmingly blue state where campaigns often turn on factional infighting within the Democratic Party.
Dan Sena, a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, met early with Harris’ team and came away concerned that they were overly reliant on political thinking shaped in California’s idiosyncratic political system.
“Winning in California requires a different road map, between a top-two candidate system and the expensive TV markets,” Sena said. “When it comes to winning there is a right way, the wrong way and the California way.”
It was not only political tactics that divided the campaign: In the spring, Maya Harris and the consulting team were at war over whether the senator should embrace or downplay her record as a prosecutor, which some on the left have criticized, a dilemma the campaign has never resolved.
One campaign strategist said it was impossible to tell if Maya Harris was speaking for herself, as an adviser, or as her sister’s representative. She has exercised broad influence over even logistical details of the campaign, like the scheduling of fundraising events, and over hiring. The uncertainty over who has final signoff has made it more difficult for the campaign to quickly execute decisions and Maya Harris’ dual roles as relative and adviser prompted the candidate’s staff to be more restrained about the advice they offer.
There are also generational fissures.One adviser said the fixation that some younger staffers have with liberals on Twitter distorted their view of what issues and moments truly mattered, joking that it was not Trump’s account that should be taken offline, as Harris has urged, but rather those of their own trigger-happy communications team.
In Baltimore, though, the consensus is that the fault lies with Rodriguez.
Messages from bookkeepers warning of financial strain went unheeded, according to his critics, until cutbacks were inevitable.
When those cuts arrived, Harris and other members of the senior staff were enraged because they did not know the extent of the layoffs until after they happened. Some aides were informed about the mass firing of New Hampshire staff from junior aides and members of the press rather than Rodriguez. Harris called him, infuriated.
Advisers close to Rodriguez said the cash flow problems were so intense he had to move swiftly and denied he ever disregarded financial warnings. They argued that the animus toward him, first reported by Politico, stems from the raw emotions of staffers seeing their colleagues pushed out.
Some of Harris’ aides said she had better instincts than her brain trust. One official recalled that during the flight from Oakland to Iowa on the night she announced her campaign in January, Harris told senior members of her campaign team that she wanted to “go stealth.” However, instead of pursuing retail politics and introducing herself to voters in more intimate settings, as Harris suggested she preferred, her senior aides determined it was more important to cement herself in the top tier and play for “big, television moments,” as one put it.
“If you go big like that, you’ll never get a real understanding of the American people,” said Minyon Moore, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and a longtime admirer of Harris. “Because we don’t live up there.”
‘She lost me today’
The organizational unsteadiness of Harris’ campaign reflects a longtime personal trait, according to allies: she is a candidate who seeks input from a stable of advisers, but her personal political convictions can be unclear.
In June, her gifts and liabilities were both on display. She scored the campaign’s biggest debate moment in her confrontation with Biden over his record on school busing — but also stepped into a morass of hazy talk on health care and the current desegregation of schools.
“I’m cool with the T-shirts, but you also have to have a strategy,” said Bakari Sellers, a former lawmaker in South Carolina and one of Harris’ top surrogates there, referring to the merchandise Harris’ campaign had marketed after that first debate.
On criminal justice, one of Harris’ calling cards, she did not unveil her own proposals until months after she began meeting with activists. Harris said she was being deliberate, but several aides familiar with the process said she was knocked off kilter by criticism from progressives and spent months torn between embracing her prosecutor record and acknowledging some faults.
At times, she avoided the topic, even initially rejecting her current campaign slogan, “Justice Is On the Ballot,” when it was presented to her earlier in the summer. At one point during the preparations, tensions flared so high that one senior aide pleaded with the candidate to provide some direction. “You know this stuff better than us!” the aide said, according to those present.
It was hardly the only time Harris has appeared uneasy or indecisive about whether to go on the offensive. In the July debate, Harris did not respond sharply to an attack on her prosecutorial record from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, even after Harris had been prepped for the topic.
On a conference call after the debate, several of Harris’ donors were alarmed and urged the campaign to strike back at Gabbard more aggressively, two people on the call said.
Harris also knew her response had been insufficient, a view quickly reinforced by her advisers. In interviews, many of them point to that debate moment as accelerating Harris’ decline and are so exasperated that they bluntly acknowledge in private that Harris struggles to carry a message beyond the initial script.
What she does seem more comfortable with, on the campaign trail and at the November debate, is making the case against Trump, which is now her core campaign message. After months of uncertainty, she’s back to embracing her role as a prosecutor.
“She should lean into it,” said radio host Charlamagne tha God, who has campaigned with Harris in his native South Carolina. “She should say, ‘I’m a prosecutor and Donald Trump is a criminal and I’m going to lock his ass up.’”
The question is whether it’s too late.
Two women arrived at a recent event Harris held in Mason City, Iowa, torn between supporting her or Buttigieg, who has emerged as a front-runner in the state.
They were left so dissatisfied, they said, that they now are backing Buttigieg.
Laurie Davis, one of the voters, said Harris’ lack of policy specifics in her remarks was disappointing. Asked when she realized she wouldn’t be voting for Harris, she paused.
“Right now, I guess,” she said. “She lost me today.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2019 The New York Times Company