Kamala Harris is putting her stumbling campaign on the line with a new Iowa-or-bust strategy: She’s shifting away from the closed-door fundraisers that dominated her summer calendar to focus on retail politicking in the crucial kickoff state.
Harris huddled with top campaign officials Tuesday in Baltimore to discuss the next steps as a series of polls show her plummeting into the mid-single digits. She’s not expected to significantly alter her message. Instead, Harris is planning to make weekly visits to the state and nearly double the size of her 65-person ground operation, sources familiar with the discussions told POLITICO.
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The re-engagement in Iowa — where the California senator held a 17-stop bus tour in August but hasn’t returned since — is part of a broader acknowledgment inside the campaign that she hasn’t been in the early states enough. It’s designed to refocus her campaign and clarify her narrowing path to the nomination.
Harris has been backsliding since her summer confrontation with Joe Biden, dropping so far in recent surveys that her once-promising campaign appears in danger of becoming an afterthought.
An Iowa poll out Wednesday, conducted by her own pollster for another client, showed Harris well out of range of the frontrunners, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, and behind Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar.
A half-dozen Harris officials and outside allies briefed on internal expectations said she needs a top-tier finish in Iowa to remain competitive and put her in position to strike in Nevada, South Carolina and on Super Tuesday, when her home state of California holds its primary.
Harris herself appeared to confirm the Iowa focus on Wednesday, though not on purpose.
“I’m fucking moving to Iowa,” she joked to a colleague in Washington, within earshot of a reporter.
Harris’ message has toggled between a frontal assault on Donald Trump and kitchen-table economic plans that aides still believe can resonate with primary voters. Ian Sams, a Harris campaign spokesman, stressed that there’s time for a comeback.
“If off-year summer polls determined the primary’s outcome, we’d all be talking about how Presidents Wes Clark and Hillary Clinton were faring in retirement,” Sams said. “We’re not playing to win a news cycle. We’re playing to win an election. We want to peak when votes are cast in the early states and in March, and our infrastructure is built to do just that.”
Campaign officials and top surrogates said that she’s unlikely to claw out of the rut with a single breakout moment. They described her upcoming efforts as an attempt at a slow reemergence they hope materializes by stringing together consistent performances.
In recent days, they’ve tried to recapture the energy behind Harris’ Senate committee interrogation of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh by calling for his impeachment. She talked about the push with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, following up with a memorable moment on guns on NBC’s “Tonight Show.”
At the same time, aides say a Harris turnaround depends almost entirely on Biden’s campaign crashing and burning.
Harris, who held recent fundraisers in New York, Connecticut and Baltimore, has prioritized fundraising during the third quarter of the year. She didn’t start her campaign with the advantages of her higher-polling rivals, including Biden and Sanders, who came in with massive donor networks, or Warren, who transferred more than $10 million from her 2018 Senate campaign. Warren has since sworn off big-dollar events for the primary, giving her time to stretch the primary map and spend hours and hours with supporters in selfie lines.
Harris’ so-called “hybrid” strategy — an attempt to strike a balance high-dollar events with small-dollar online fundraising — was complicated by her sluggish summer. Online giving typically slows when a campaign hits a rough patch. That’s made Harris even more reliant on the in-person events that require travel and considerable time away from the trail.
“The challenge is you need money to run the campaign, but you have to balance that with campaigning,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist. “She didn’t start at the same place financially … She didn’t have the same pieces others had coming out of the starting block.”
While Harris will continue to hold fundraisers, the priority will be on campaigning. There are some potential bright spots for Harris to build off. Interest in her remains high at her early-state stops. During her last trip to Iowa, for the bus tour, she locked down endorsements from the political power couple Sue and Bob Dvorsky, along with the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition.
But the coalition’s support also serves as a warning of sorts, according to the group’s chairman. In an interview, Prakash Kopparapu said Harris needs to be in the state more.
Harris has “the most practical, pragmatic plans,” Kopparapu said. “But they have to listen to that message often. And it has to be part of their day-to-day conversations — not just when they watch TV, or go to an event.”