Politics

Kamala Harris stakes out her turf in California Senate bid

In this Nov. 16, 2012 file photo, California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles. Three weeks after announcing her candidacy for the U.S. Senate,  Harris hasn't spoken a word, a strategy that has allowed her to avoid media scrutiny while carefully setting a foundation for the 2016 contest.
In this Nov. 16, 2012 file photo, California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles. Three weeks after announcing her candidacy for the U.S. Senate, Harris hasn't spoken a word, a strategy that has allowed her to avoid media scrutiny while carefully setting a foundation for the 2016 contest.
Richard Vogel/AP

It's been more than three weeks since she announced her U.S. Senate candidacy and Kamala Harris hasn't spoken a word at a public campaign event.

That's because there haven't been any.

The state attorney general has piled up a dozen endorsements from like-minded Democrats, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But Harris hasn't shared a stage with any of them — the announcements were distributed through email or Twitter.

Even her entry into the 2016 race last month was seen but not heard: She began the campaign with a brief, written post on her website.

With the first round of voting still more than a year away, Harris' steps point to an early strategy that appears less about connecting with California's 18 million voters than sending a message to likely rivals to get out of the way. For now, she's the only established candidate, but there's a long list of possible contenders, including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Democratic U.S. Reps. Loretta Sanchez, Adam Schiff and Xavier Becerra.

While she has yet to make a formal campaign appearance, Harris, 50, has been busy phoning potential supporters and holding private fundraisers for a contest that could easily cost $30 million or more. That will force candidates to raise an average of $400,000 weekly.

"What is the audience she is trying to affect right now? It's not the public, it's other potential candidates," said Republican consultant Aaron McLear, a George W. Bush campaign veteran who advised GOP nominee Neel Kashkari in the 2014 California governor's race.

"She's doing everything she can to put herself in the pole position as soon as possible," McLear said. For potential contenders, "the longer they wait, the more endorsements she is racking up, the more money she is raising."

Sen. Barbara Boxer's announcement in January that she would not seek a fifth term created the first open Senate seat since 1993 and set the stage for a free-for-all among a new generation of California Democrats. The party is expected to retain Boxer's seat, given California's pronounced Democratic tilt.

The emerging contest has already exposed rivalries of geography and demographics in the diverse state.

Villaraigosa was the first Hispanic mayor in Los Angeles in a century and Latinos, who now make up 20 percent of voters, are eager to see one of their own in Washington. Harris, whose father is black and mother is Indian, has landed key endorsements from black leadership. Some leaders in the community have fretted in recent years about diminishing black political clout in the state as the Hispanic population grows, particularly in Southern California.

Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who is black and supports Harris, a girlfriend two decades ago, told The Sacramento Bee last month that Villaraigosa should pass on the Senate race. "His loyalty and his relationship with her should be so valuable, and he should, in my opinion, see it as an opportunity to demonstrate that," Brown said.

Meantime, Harris' Sacramento job has allowed her to stay visible without campaigning. Meeting with reporters at her Los Angeles office Tuesday to discuss a criminal case, she turned away a question about the Senate seat.

"We are in a state building, and I'm not going to talk about politics now," she said.

Harris' early maneuvers bear some resemblance to those employed by a one-time attorney general, Gov. Jerry Brown, another Democrat from Northern California who in his 2010 race for the state's top job was noted for holding off on conventional-style campaigning and spending. He was an even scarcer presence on the campaign trail winning re-election last year.

But Brown, whose father was also governor, owns one of the most recognized political names in the state. Harris, though elected twice statewide, is less widely known, especially outside of her home base on the San Francisco Bay Area.

Polling last September by the independent Field Poll suggested that 1 in 4 voters didn't know enough about Harris to have an opinion of her.

"It's an old-school sort of approach to a campaign, which is limit your exposure to the public and the media and roll out endorsements from politicians and try to position yourself as a front-runner," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, a longtime adviser to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California.

"I don't think it's a good long-term strategy," Carrick added. "You might avoid mistakes in the early part, but sooner or later you have to get out there and get engaged. I don't think you can keep it up very long."