Vice President Kamala Harris has faced her fair share of negative coverage since taking office as she has mostly taken a back seat to President Joe Biden. Now, that’s starting to change.
With Democratic frustrations running high and Biden under pressure from abortion-rights advocates to respond to the Supreme Court decision overturning of Roe v. Wade, Harris is emerging as a focal point of the administration’s response — and perhaps its most forceful voice.
While abortion is not formally part of her portfolio as vice president, Harris has served as the leading edge of the administration’s fight for reproductive rights in recent months, from her “How dare they” speech to EMILY’s List the day after the draft Supreme Court decision was revealed in May to now traveling the states to meet with lawmakers on abortion rights.
The conversations — in Washington, D.C., Orlando, Philadelphia and Atlantic City over the last week and a half — are allowing the vice president to take a renewed role on the frontlines of the fight for reproductive rights, which she has been involved in going back to her days as California attorney general. And, in a moment of uncertainty about who will carry the mantle of the Democratic Party forward post-Biden, whether in 2024 or 2028, the meetings have put her front and center in a conversation over how abortion rights will play out in the states in a post-Roe paradigm.
Her meetings with Democratic state lawmakers are establishing her as the go-to resource for Democratic state lawmakers as they look for innovative ways to combat new abortion-related restrictions in the coming weeks, months and years — and earning her plaudits within the party that could be helpful to her in 2024 and beyond.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought maybe, you know, it would be like the queen coming in sort of. But she is understated, and she just sat down and was very warm to each of us,” Nebraska state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks told POLITICO. “She spent an hour talking with us, which I was blown away with.”
“There was some talk about her coming to various states to support this and to be a part of the battle and to show that she’s there in spirit and in person,” Brooks added. “I mean, I think that we all walked away feeling pleased, felt like we had an ally. We felt like it was a partnership, which we didn’t feel necessarily before.”
South Dakota state Rep. Erin Healy said it was helpful “to have that kind of conversation with somebody who is so strong at setting the national policies and national story” — a nod to the vice president’s coalition building skills.
And these meetings are just the beginning. Harris will be traveling two to three times a week in the coming weeks to tout the administration’s priorities and meet with lawmakers on the frontlines of the fight for reproductive freedom, according to a source familiar with the vice president’s plans.
In closed-door conversations, Harris has been encouraging state lawmakers to focus their messaging on how abortion bans should be viewed as government interference with patient privacy and freedom and to underscore that they aren’t trying to change anyone’s religious beliefs; she’s also been trying to help state lawmakers share best practices and innovative ideas on how to expand abortion access.
Democratic lawmakers in states that are trying to restrict abortion access have been very receptive to that messaging, saying they plan to use it to reach across the aisle to appeal to their more moderate counterparts.
“The vice president was very astute, I think, in terms of encouraging us to message in a way that is inclusive, in the sense that we will need a coalition of Americans to try and win back these freedoms over time, and it will take not only Democrats but Republicans,” said Florida state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the incoming House Democratic leader. “It’s not so much about Democrat versus Republican as much as it is about these being fundamental American values rooted in freedom and in liberty to make the most intimate decisions relating to heart and home.”
In those conversations — and in her speech to the NAACP National Convention in Atlantic City on Monday — Harris has also been tying together the fight for reproductive freedoms with debates over gun violence and voting rights.
“I asked my team, I said, ‘Do a Venn diagram on two circles for me and, in particular, the overlap of states that are attacking the freedom to vote and attacking women’s freedoms over their own bodies. There are 10 states that are doing both,” Harris said. “Here’s the point: Our freedoms are all connected.”
Harris’ advocacy on this issue comes at a key moment, as party worries over 2024 bubble up and the list of prospective Democratic White House hopefuls expands to include those who are speaking forcefully and combatively to the concerns of the party leaders and the base, whether it’s on abortion rights or gun control.