Democrats start moving to Harris as Biden digs in

Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Tribune News Service/Getty Images via CNN Newsource

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Amid the ongoing fallout from Joe Biden’s debate performance, talk in many top Democratic circles has already moved to who Kamala Harris’ running mate would be.

That’s how certain a widening group of leading party officials, operatives and donors are that the president’s slow start to salvage his campaign just won’t work, with several close allies skeptical that he is up to the reelection campaign he has pledged to stay in, based on CNN’s conversations with two dozen Democratic politicians and operatives.

Biden always says not to compare him to the almighty, but to the alternative. That’s exactly what a growing number of Democrats looking at Harris are doing.

For her part, the vice president and her staff have deliberately ignored most of the calls and texts coming their way, remaining insistently on message about both her support for Biden and her pride in sticking with him.

But Harris has already made some changes: Only after last week’s debate did her office update her schedule to put her with Biden for the Fourth of July picnic and fireworks. She has not attended the picnic before, instead keeping to her own Independence Day tradition of making a stop at a local fire station. And after Democratic governors rejected the White House’s initial offer to have her speak to them instead of Biden, she was also added to the meeting and closed it with a speech urging unity and sticking with the president.

That’s her keeping close to Biden — but it’s also Biden keeping her close.

Despite her efforts, Democratic politics has started to reshape around her — as has former President Donald Trump’s campaign, which has already begun attacking Harris. Several officials told CNN they have begun chiding donors who complain that they don’t think she can win, arguing that they need to stop and get on board with her. Other officials and advisers said plans are underway to convince Biden to immediately throw his support behind Harris, release his Democratic delegates and ask them to follow his choice. Former presidents and party leaders would then follow suit, they believe, in hopes of avoiding a contentious fight to lead the Democratic ticket.

A more open race, these top Democrats hope, would be for Harris’ running mate, with a focus on leading Democratic governors. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear are the most discussed; the list also includes Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Tim Walz of Minnesota. But even that is fraught, as it would deny Harris the deference given to every other modern presidential nominee to pick their own running mate.

A Democratic senator offered an extended and very colorful metaphor for describing the movement to Harris, likening Biden and his vice president to a star quarterback who needs to be taken off the field and their backup.

“We start talking in the huddle: ‘Do we put in the backup QB?’ The backup knows our team, the backup knows the plays, the backup has played in the NFL,” the senator said. “The crowd in the stands full of passionate fans starts chanting: ‘Put in the kid from Alabama!’ ‘Put in the QB from Wisconsin!’ All just because the backup threw an interception earlier. But we know the backup and have confidence in them.”

The senator said that’s the difference between the donors who are handwringing about Harris’ chances and many of those who are trying to focus on what the realistic options are now.

“I just want to say to all the fans: ‘Do you not get that they’ve only played college, they’ve never played a single play in the NFL? They don’t know our team or the plays?’” the senator said. “The players are like, ‘That’s nuts. Let’s see if our star quarterback is coming back.’ But if he doesn’t, the idea of our suddenly drafting someone from a school with a different playbook who hasn’t played a single game in the NFL is a huge risk.”

There are also the logistics of making a new person the Democratic nominee. Harris would be able to take over the Biden campaign fundraising and infrastructure, since she is also part of the current ticket.

“It’s a straight shot and she’s ready to roll. We’ve got to be decisive, too,” said Tim Ryan, the former Ohio congressman, who said he’s been getting flooded with private agreements from former colleagues and others after saying Biden needs to step aside to make room for Harris. “It plays right into the stereotype that Democrats are weak. With one fell swoop, you can change so many different narratives.”

Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz dismissed the speculation.

“President Biden is our nominee, Vice President Harris is our running mate, and we will win this November,” he said.

Chatter about Biden’s vs. Harris’ weaknesses

While several House Democrats have told colleagues they fear they will lose their seats with Harris at the top of the ticket, multiple other high level Democratic skeptics say they have already turned around on their past wariness of Harris — at least as opposed to sticking with Biden.

“Are you kidding?” is how the leader of one major Democratic group described the feeling when asked about preferring Harris, for all her weaknesses, to Biden in the state he’s in.

“He’s in such bad shape, but I’ve also had conversations with Democrats about her from some key groups that have been skeptical in the past who believe everyone will rally to her if she’s the nominee,” said a Democratic House member who has long been a Harris doubter.

An anonymously written Google document viewed by CNN titled “Unburdened by What Has Been: The Case for Kamala” — written by self-described “senior operatives within Democratic political institutions” — has been popping up in group chats of Democratic donors and leading coalition groups. It lays out a detailed argument and plan for a campaign.

“There’s one path out of this mess, and it’s Kamala,” the document reads. “Kamala Harris has the strongest claim to Democratic legitimacy. She is the only candidate who can take the reins right now, instead of in late August with less than three months left to go. She has significant and widely underplayed electoral advantages. She can win.”

Still, even that document is full of caveats: “This isn’t an argument about deservedness, or about why you personally should love Kamala. This is about strategy and winning in the face of unimaginable electoral stakes. The anti-Trump coalition cannot afford to discount the strengths of the nominated Democratic running mate and current vice president. She’s not the best option — she’s the only realistic option to win.”

Rep. Nanette Barragán, a California Democrat who supported Harris’ presidential campaign in 2019 and is now the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said that though any scenario in which Biden isn’t running is “a hypothetical situation we shouldn’t be talking about,” she’s also observed the turn in the conversations she’s been hearing about the vice president.

“It’s nice to see that people are finally recognizing the value of her work and what she brings to the partnership,” Barragán said.

Biden’s anemic public schedule since his debate debacle has not only raised more doubts about him, but strengthened the case for Harris, and for moving quickly.

Mini Timmaraju, the president of the abortion rights advocacy group Reproductive Freedom for All, formerly known as NARAL, said Harris already has more credibility than Biden as a leader on one of the Democrats’ top issues, and that no matter what happens, “You can’t win this election without Kamala.”

As for Democratic doubters, Timmaraju said, “I don’t care if they love her or not. I know I should as an ally on the campaign. But I need them to trust the base of the party. They don’t have to like her, but they have to trust that she’s getting the job done — and saving our democracy.”

Pushing back on attacks on Harris

Harris loyalists have been frustrated to see the conversation about potential Biden replacements not start and stop with her. But they have been enraged by seeing donors and others talking down her chances, especially with some post-debate polls showing movement toward Trump — and a CNN poll out Wednesday showing that she would be within the margin of error against Trump, 45% to his 47%, in a hypothetical head-to-head. She was ahead of several other potential Democratic replacements.

But with panic about Biden metastasizing, it’s not just the traditional loyalists who are standing up for Harris anymore.

“If he stays in, voters need to have confidence in Harris as his running mate and potential successor,” said Ezra Levin, a co-founder of the Democratic grassroots group Indivisible. “It’s foolish and counterproductive to defend Biden by tearing down Harris.”

Biden has so far retained the support, publicly and mostly privately, of the Congressional Black Caucus. If he were to step aside, though, several members say they expect that support would immediately transfer to her.

That would be a point of pride for the caucus, but also one of practicality: There is no winning the election for a Democrat without huge Black turnout in places like Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlanta, and they don’t believe the Democratic Party or an alternative would get there after shoving her aside — especially because none of the other leading contenders are Black.

“I actually don’t think that anybody else other than her would beat Trump because of what you’d lose in the base,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York congressman and senior CBC member.

Harris’ preparations for Trump

Harris has considered what it would be like to run against Trump before. In late 2018, over two days of sessions with top aides to decide about running for the Democratic nomination in 2020, among the questions aides pressed her with was what she would do in a town hall-style debate with Trump, similar to the one in 2016 where the Republican infamously stalked around behind Hillary Clinton at times.

Harris’ answer: She’d turn around and say to him, “Why are you being so weird?”

As vice president, Harris has tended to be known more for her word salads than sharp elbows like that. But for months, she had already been on an upswing in voters’ minds, which culminated in how she handled Biden’s debate performance in the immediate moment and afterward.

After looking over talking points suggested by Biden campaign aides to focus on some of Trump’s most radical statements and that Biden had a cold, according to several people familiar with what happened that evening, Harris came up with her line to CNN’s Anderson Cooper in the moment, arguing that a bad 90 minutes shouldn’t overshadow Biden’s three and a half years as the president.

That line, with both its defense and its honesty about what happened onstage, surprised even several close to her with its sharp delivery. It has cut through so much that in the week since, Jill Biden, multiple campaign aides and the president himself have repeated the same words almost verbatim.

Even before the last week of tail spinning, Harris had kept her focus on Trump, with a plan to take on his running mate by keeping the argument about the top of the ticket, making out anyone who would run with him as an interchangeable rubber stamp on his extremist agenda.

“The president is and will remain our party’s nominee, and Vice President Harris is proud to be his running mate and looks forward to serving at his side for four more years,” Brian Fallon, Harris’ campaign communications director, told CNN.

Running mate options

Much of the speculative running mate conversation for Harris has centered on Cooper, the two-term governor of North Carolina, and Beshear, the younger two-term governor of Kentucky. Both, like Harris, are former state attorneys general, and both have won with Republican support. Beshear attended the Biden meeting on Wednesday in person, while Cooper attended virtually.

Cooper has a relationship with Harris that goes back years, to when they were both attorneys general. In a late 2020 interview, after Cooper won his current term and Harris was elected vice president, the governor talked about how their “really good relationship” had continued into her Senate years, when she would occasionally consult with him on Trump judicial appointees from his home state.

“She knows what it’s like to hold a state office. I think that that’s very relatable to us as governors,” Cooper said then, calling Harris “whip smart.”

“I think she’s ready to do this job,” Cooper said.

He demurred in that interview when asked if he could envision a Harris-Cooper ticket one day, focusing on his 40-year unbeaten record as the only Democrat to consistently win in North Carolina.

Beshear also knows how to win tough races. He’s won the top office twice in a much more Republican-heavy state and did it while talking up Democratic values like reproductive rights and looking after trans kids. He’s extremely popular in his state, and has caught national attention for being young — he’s 46 — and a smooth communicator who has already this year racked up invites to come speak to Democratic events in Virginia, Montana and Iowa.

Neither Cooper’s nor Beshear’s aides returned requests for comment on the speculation.

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.

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