California Sen. Kamala Harris has assumed a central role in Democratic advertising as the presidential campaign enters its final weeks, a sign that party operatives are counting on the first Black woman to appear on a major party’s presidential ticket to fire up young people and Black voters in key swing states.
A set of new advertisements and mailers from BlackPAC, a political action committee that focuses on turning out Black voters in the presidential race and in key Senate races, puts Harris front and center: A television and digital ad uses the speech that Harris delivered at her own presidential campaign kickoff in 2019 as narration. One of the group’s mailers outlines Harris’ biography, noting her education at Howard University and how she was “raised with the values of the civil rights movement.”
And Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is giving Harris, also the first South Asian woman to run on a major party ticket, a far more prominent role in campaign ads than vice presidential candidates have traditionally warranted. Last week, the campaign released a 60-second digital and television ad, titled “We’re Listening,” featuring Harris speaking directly to the camera about police reform and racial justice.
Democratic operatives said Harris’ outsized role reflects both her ability to reach voters – especially young people – who remain skeptical of Biden and the general jolt of energy she’s brought to the ticket since her selection shortly before the Democratic National Convention last month. (Biden and the Democratic National Committee raised more than $360 million in August, with much of that cash pouring in after the Harris announcement.)
Many Harris allies also see the ads as crucial to protecting a candidate who they think was unfairly treated during her own presidential run, and who has already been the target of misogynistic and racist attacks from President Donald Trump and other Republicans.
“Voters already know how much Trump has hurt their lives. We don’t need to tell them about that,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC. “What feels most important to do is to define Kamala Harris and Joe Biden for Black voters in relation to the issues that Black voters have said they care the most about.”
BlackPAC’s ads are part of a seven-figure buy aimed at boosting Black turnout in Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The group’s other spots and mailers emphasize how voting is a significant part of building political power for the Black community, and how the coronavirus pandemic has hit Black people especially hard.
“This is a crisis. But we can fix it by organizing the power of our community to eject those who deal in hate and elect those who help us elevate,” a narrator says in one of the ads. “This is the time to make our voice, our vote and our power heard.”
BlackPAC is a super PAC, which means it can spend and raise unlimited sums of money as long as it does not coordinate directly with a political campaign. Most of the group’s funding this cycle comes from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a liberal nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, giving $2.25 million. It also received $500,000 from the nonprofit group America Votes and $120,000 from James Murdoch and his wife. (Murdoch, the son of News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch, has donated extensively to Democratic causes this election cycle.)
Biden has held a consistent lead over Trump in most public polls, both nationally and in major swing states. While his advantage among Black voters is massive, it remains smaller than Hillary Clinton’s edge over Trump four years ago, and Democratic strategists are particularly worried about enthusiasm from young Black men. High Black voter turnout could prove crucial in nearly every key presidential swing state: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida.
Harris’ campaign travel so far indicates that Biden’s team plans to use her to reach out to voters of color. On Monday, she traveled to Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, where Black turnout dipped in 2016. There, she met with the family of Jacob Blake, then with a group of Black business owners to discuss the Biden campaign’s economic plans, and finally with a group of Latino community organizers.
“We have to get this done,” Harris told a group of roughly 45 supporters who had gathered on the sidewalk outside her meeting with business owners. “I need your help in Milwaukee, OK? We’re going to get this done.” (A video of Harris’ brief remarks went viral on Tuesday, racking up more than 3 million views, with many people commenting on her footwear: a pair of black low-rise Chuck Taylor All-Stars.)
Matt Hill, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, said the ads featuring Harris were part of the campaign’s broad advertising strategy, a contrast to Republicans’ Trump-centric approach.
“Donald Trump’s campaign is built around one person: Donald Trump,” Hill wrote in an email to HuffPost. “That’s why they appease him with DC cable news buys, profit his pockets spending millions at Trump properties, and make sure he is the only star of their ads. Joe Biden is running for President not for himself, but for the country ― and that’s why we not only proudly feature the whole ticket across our paid media, but the broad coalition of working Americans who are voting Biden-Harris too.”
Officials at the progressive group NextGen America, which focuses on turning out youth voters, said their polling showed Harris was already making young women, especially Black and Latina women, more excited about voting in November. They noted that both Harris’ inspiring personal story ― she’s the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica who has ascended to the highest levels of American politics ― and her ability to deliver biting attacks on the president could fire up young people.
“They’re going to put Kamala Harris in the key, grabbing rebounds and throwing elbows. Joe Biden gets to be the person floating above all of this, pointing out that Donald Trump is a crazy person,” said Heather Greven, communications director at NextGen. “Our audience is going to love the Kamala debate against Mike Pence.”
If the Biden campaign wants to cement a relationship between Harris and young voters of color, it will need to address criticisms of Harris’ record as a prosecutor in San Francisco and as attorney general of California. Throughout the Democratic presidential primaries, progressives assailed Harris as part of the machinery of mass incarceration.
“Some of these negative ads are landing,” Shropshire said, citing both the shorthand perception that “Kamala is a cop” and the idea that Biden only selected her as a way to pander to Black voters. “Some are sticking. Some people are spouting right-wing talking points, since that’s all they’ve heard.”
Harris allies plan to instead highlight her record as a senator, including her lead role in the Justice in Policing Act, the Democratic proposal to reform police departments that was written after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
BlackPAC, along with three other super PACs led by women, is slated to spend $10 million to combat criticisms of Harris online. Republicans have already made it clear that they plan to attack Harris aggressively, with Trump taking direct aim at her during a rally Tuesday night in North Carolina.
“She could never be the first woman president. She could never be. That would be an insult to our country,” Trump said.
Regardless of Trump’s attacks, however, Democratic operatives said the centrality of Harris to the presidential campaign was an inherent shift.
“Going from picking [Clinton’s running mate] Tim Kaine to having ads and messaging that really centered white voters to now, where Kamala Harris is on the top of the ticket, speaking about racial justice,” said Aimee Allison, founder and president of She The People, which advocated for Biden to pick a woman of color as his running mate. “Things really have changed.”