Harris adding guns to her already politically charged policy portfolio, from root causes of migration to voting access and abortion, comes as Republicans increase their scrutiny of her as President Joe Biden‘s second in command and his presumptive heir.
Harris is “the gift that keeps on giving” to her critics, according to Cesar Conda, a Republican strategist and onetime aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
“It’s not her verbal gaffes or maniacal cackle that are a political liability, but rather her job performance as vice president,” Conda told the Washington Examiner. “For instance, Biden appointed her ‘border czar’ to be the administration’s point on the border surge, but she failed to do her job: 304,162 illegal immigrants [were] encountered at the border in August, which is the highest since the Department of Homeland Security started keeping records.”
Harris’s spokespeople dispute that she is responsible for Biden’s immigration policy, contending instead she is managing a smaller part of it: the root causes of migration. Similarly, she has been able to connect with people in her official and campaign capacities on abortion.
Although her supporters hope she can repeat that success with guns, Harris is coming under more scrutiny from Republicans, particularly GOP primary candidates such as former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), even two-term New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, to undermine Biden before next year’s election. The vice president’s average approval-disapproval rating is 40%-53%, according to FiveThirtyEight, while the president’s is 41%-55%. Her average favorability-unfavorability rating is 36%-54%, per RealClearPolitics, while his is 40%-56%.
Simultaneously, concerns about Biden have encouraged speculation about Harris’s own political future as Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) openly considers primarying the president.
Paul Henderson, Harris’s former prosecution chief when she was San Francisco’s district attorney, described this as “an important time” for the vice president to regroup after “a series of frustrating assignments and challenging outcomes.”
“Aside from whether or not this is the moment that gun control moves forward, having Kamala at the helm signals to Democrats that a solid priority [for] the party is now being carried to voters by the vice president,” he said. “It’s a rallying topic with the base of Democrats and likely to serve as a rallying cry to new voters motivated by the topic.”
Even before 2028, Democrats have been pressed on whether Harris is Biden’s strongest running mate for next year after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) appeared to harbor doubts when she first responded to that question this month during an interview. Pelosi later clarified her remarks.
For vice presidential scholar Joel Goldstein, the preoccupation with Harris’s prospects during her first term “distracts attention from her current work in a way that’s unusual and unfair to her.”
“The takeaway from these assignments should be that they are reflections of President Biden’s confidence in her to help handle difficult problems,” the Saint Louis University School of Law professor emeritus said. “Generally, when a party attacks the VP candidate as much as Republicans have attacked Harris, it means that they perceive problems attacking the presidential candidate.”
“Republicans attack Harris because she’s unpopular among Republican voters, but many of them wouldn’t vote for any Democratic candidate,” he added. “Others will realize that President Biden and [former President Donald] Trump are essentially the same age, so if Biden’s age is an issue, so is Trump’s, and Trump has other problems.”
Democratic strategist and former Harris 2020 primary campaign consultant Mike Nellis called on the media to stop taking Republicans’ “bait” about the vice president not being on Biden’s ticket next year and engage “more on conversation rooted in reality.”
“That said, if, and when, there’s an open presidential primary, I would expect a lot of great candidates to run, including Kamala,” the Authentic campaigns CEO said. “I firmly believe that competitive primaries are good for the party. They develop new leaders, tactics, and technologies that strengthen our ability to win elections.”
The White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention will “use the full power of the federal government to strengthen the coalition of survivors, and advocates, and students, and teachers, and elected leaders to save lives and fight for the right of all people to be safe from fear,” according to Harris last week during a Rose Garden ceremony announcing the new initiative.
But more broadly, even though gun safety motivates Democrats to vote, the threat of gun control has a similar effect among Republicans, a dynamic Harris is familiar with regarding abortion.
“Talking with our peers and family members about the fact that when you vote, it actually determines whether the person who is holding elected office is going to fight for your freedoms and rights or not,” Harris said last week during a National “Fight for Our Freedoms” College Tour stop at Reading Area Community College in Pennsylvania. “Whether that be the freedom that you should have to just be free from attack, free from hate, free from gun violence, free from bias, free to love who you love and be open about it, free to have access to the ballot box without people obstructing your ability to exercise your civic right to vote, in terms of who will be the people holding elected office and leading your country.”