Harris quits, so who benefits?

Sen. Kamala Harris pulls the plug on presidential bid

Sen. Kamala Harris appears at a Planned Parenthood event in San Francisco on May 31, when she was still running for president.

Sen. Kamala Harris appears at a Planned Parenthood event in San Francisco on May 31, when she was still running for president.

Photo by Ben Christopher for CalMatters

This is an abridged version of the full story, which is available at CalMatters.org.—a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

California Sen. Kamala Harris seemed all but destined to be a front-runner when she launched her Democratic presidential campaign before a cheering throng of 20,000 supporters in downtown Oakland last January.

A prosecutor to take down President Donald Trump, a black woman in a party that relies on black female voters, a U.S. senator from the country’s largest state—on paper, she looked formidable.

This was before former Vice President Joe Biden entered the race. Before Mayor Pete and Elizabeth Warren rocketed to the top tier. Before Harris proclaimed that she was “moving to Iowa” (expletive deleted) and before the campaign adopted and then discarded a handful of ill-fitting slogans (“Dude gotta go.”) Before the campaign’s internal drama found its way into Politico and The New York Times, which headlined its story “How Kamala Harris’s campaign unraveled.”

On Dec. 3, Harris announced that she was throwing in the towel, leaving a field of 15 Democratic candidates—many of whom are still polling below her. Her “political pragmatist” label failed to resonate with the mood of her party’s electorate, and calling herself a “progressive prosecutor” served to dredge up questions about just how progressive she really was as San Francisco’s district attorney or California’s attorney general. But according to Harris, it simply came down to money.

“I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign. And as the campaign has gone on, it’s become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete,” she said in a press release—a final dig at Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg and John Delaney, three billionaires who remain in the field.

Harris’ decision to drop out two months before the Iowa caucuses isn’t just a national story. It’s also a California one. Her Senate term extends through 2022, assuming she isn’t tapped for a vice presidential slot or potential Cabinet position in a Democratic presidential administration. It’s unclear how appealing that would be to her; what is clear is that she is ambitious and has plenty of years to try for higher office again.

Here’s what else the end of her 2020 bid means for the Golden State: Our votes, cash and endorsements now up for grabs.

If polls are anything to go by, Harris’ sudden departure from the race is probably good news for Warren, the senator from Massachusetts. A recent Capitol Weekly poll of likely Democratic voters in California showed 45% of Harris supporters back Warren as their second choice. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg took another 16% and 13%, respectively.

But the race is still so “neck and neck and neck,” said Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc.,who conducted the poll, that the distribution of Harris’ relatively small share of the electorate in California isn’t likely to crown any one candidate the clear frontrunner. It could provide a bit of leverage for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has prioritized voter mobilization in California and now boasts 80 in-state staffers, as well as Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York who is skipping the early states entirely and instead plowing millions of dollars in advertising into California and other states that vote on March 3.

Where Harris had a more commanding presence in her home state was in endorsements and big money fundraising. Despite months of lackluster polling, Harris was still the top beneficiary of large dollar donors (those who give more than $200 per year) in California this year. In 2019, according to the most recently available filings, she raised more than $11.5 million from the Golden State’s donor class.

The runner-up for California’s Democratic dollars thus far? Buttigieg.

California donors played a major role in the campaign this year precisely because “they didn’t coalesce around Harris as a favorite daughter and instead provided millions to keep other candidates viable,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic political consultant.

Harris also earned most of the state’s high profile endorsements—including Gov. Gavin Newsom, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and President Pro Tem Toni Atkins.

When state lawmakers decided to bump up California’s primary election to March 3, it was with the hope that the nation’s largest state would play a more decisive role in choosing presidential nominees.

It’s not clear that an early vote from California would have helped Harris much anyway. Despite being the junior senator of the state, she was floundering in the low double digits here—only a few points higher than her polling in other states. According to a new survey that the Institute of Governmental Studies conducted for The Los Angeles Times, 61% of California’s likely Democratic primary voters felt that Harris should drop out.

Critics—both outside and inside the Harris operation—have blamed the campaign’s leadership for poor financial management.

But Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus, said critical coverage of the Harris campaign and its inability to raise enough money was in part the result of “sexism” and “misogynoir” (misogyny aimed at black women).

Reporters were writing “post-mortems before there was even a mortem,” she said. “The money was just absolutely insurmountable and you can’t raise it if people come to assume that you can’t raise it. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”