Vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris is expected to play a prominent role in the fight against President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, though it’s not clear whether she’ll tear into pick in the same way she went after now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh, an appearance that brought her to national prominence.
During the Kavanugh hearing, Harris was just one of 100 senators. Now she’s Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s running mate, and people close to Biden say the campaign hasn’t decided exactly how to play it.
On one hand, Harris’s seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee — which she still holds — gives her the perfect platform to lead the charge against whoever Trump picks to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Friday. The Judiciary Committee oversees the confirmation hearing, and Kavanaugh’s hearing galvanized the nation, with Harris in a leading role.
The question now, however, is whether her place on a presidential ticket might call for a different and more measured approach.
Biden advisers have already shown a desire for Harris to “prosecute” the case against Trump, a phrase she used during her own presidential run and revived in recent weeks as Biden’s running mate. The Biden campaign will look for her to aggressively question whoever Trump picks and display the prosecutorial skills she honed as California’s attorney general and San Francisco’s district attorney.
Biden, who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Ginsburg was confirmed, also led the hearings that seated conservative Justice Clarence Thomas. He has since expressed regret for his harsh questioning of Anita Hill, a lawyer who testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her, when it was revisited in the Democratic primaries.
Now, an opportunity to do the same sort of interrogation of a Supreme Court pick would put Harris in a spotlight rare for a vice presidential nominee.
That spotlight could help Biden, who has not sparked great enthusiasm among young, liberal voters, while leading in national and many battleground state polls. His selection of Harris, the first Black and Indian-American woman to be on a major-party presidential ticket, helped.
But those voters could be further inspired seeing Harris defend the legacy of Ginsburg, who became an icon for the feminist cases she won as a lawyer early in her career.
Trump said Saturday he expects to name a nominee to the high court this week and that it would likely be a woman. Two names of appellate court judges have surfaced to the short list — Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa.
That puts Harris in a better position to question Trump’s nominee than it would a male candidate, said Lara Bazelon, a law professor at the University of San Francisco.
“A female prosecutor going after a female nominee in an undermining way reads a lot different than a man doing the same thing,” she said.
“She can say, don’t think this justice will issue pro-woman and pro-gay decisions as Justice Ginsburg would have done, because she won’t,” Bazelon said. And she can try to embarrass Republican women for trying to push forward a candidate who might oppose abortion rights, which a majority of American women support.
A nomination of Lagoa, a Cuban-American, however, would put Harris in a delicate position. Trump and Biden are virtually tied in Florida and Cuban-American voters still tend to be Republican. A too-strong attack on a Hispanic nominee, particularly Cuban-American, could backfire.
Bazelon also noted that one of Harris’s strengths as a prosecutor throughout her career is to ask a question that already contains the answer. “That becomes the sound bite, and it goes viral,” she said.
This time around, Harris’s questioning would face even greater scrutiny under the klieg lights of the last weeks of the 2020 campaign. But her role will be heavily dictated by Biden, who is just beginning to make preparations about the campaign’s response to the vacancy and the Republicans’ push to fill the seat.
Biden advisers have already shown a desire for Harris to “prosecute” the case against Trump himself.
“The stakes of this election couldn’t be higher,” Harris tweeted on Saturday. “Millions of American are counting on us to win and protect the Supreme Court – for their health, their families, and for their rights.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he intends to bring Trump’s nominee up for a vote on the Senate floor, but hasn’t said whether hearings and a vote would come before or after November 3.Whether Harris is in a committee hearing room or campaigning in battleground states, she can make a case against the nominee.
“This whole election is about turnout,” said pollster Fernando Guerra. “It’s not really even about Republican turnout – this election will be determined by Democratic turnout. Especially in the battleground states. It may help Biden and Harris by mobilizing younger and more progressive voters. Ginsburg was a cultural icon who liberals and even young people related to. They’ll be paying close attention now, maybe more than before.”Biden has also said what whoever wins the election should get to nominate the next justice, but the former vice president does not have plans to release a list of his own potential nominees, according to a campaign official.
Instead, the Biden’s team is planning to drill down on a messaging campaign centered on health care, the issues they see as most at risk if the court swings further to the right. A Biden aide said there will be a particular focus on protecting the Affordable Care Act and its coverage of pre-existing health conditions, because the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case on the matter a week after the election.
“Voters understand: The next Justice who goes on the Court will decide whether or not they will still have protections for pre-existing conditions,” the Biden campaign said in a statement. “It carried them to the House majority in 2018 and it is motivating voters in communities all over the country. It will further motivate voters to turn out for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”