Sen. Kamala Harris has a perception problem: Some Iowa Democratic activists, caucusgoers and party chairs believe the California Democrat is overlooking the first-in-the-nation caucus.
Harris’ campaign maintains this isn’t the case, and that the senator is going to work to win the state over the next eight months. Campaign operatives, including chair Deidre DeJear, highlight Harris’ three planned trips to Iowa over the next five weeks and that her current staff of 35 in the state will grow to 65 in the coming weeks.
But conversations with over a dozen party activists and caucusgoers still determining who to support show what the senator is facing a conundrum: Democrats here are impressed with Harris’ record in the Senate and many caucusgoers have her on their short list of candidates they would consider supporting – but they are holding back embracing her campaign fully because of a sense that she is valuing other states over Iowa.
Central to Harris’ issue is that much of the coverage around her candidacy’s early state strategy has highlighted her focus on South Carolina, the fact that Nevada is a neighboring state to Harris’ native California and the news that Harris’ delegate-rich home state has moved up the primary calendar to March 3, 2020.
For Iowans, there is pride in having candidates come through as early and as often as possible so the state’s Democrats can vet and size up the presidential hopefuls. Harris’ weekend visit in Iowa is only her fourth since announcing her campaign in January, compared to her seven trips to South Carolina and four trips to Nevada in the same time – and this strikes some Iowans as a sign that she is paying less attention to the state.
“I don’t think she is focusing on Iowa,” said Wendy Marsh, a Des Moines-area lawyer who is considering supporting Harris. “I think she is going for California and the bigger states.”
Marsh added: “I think she is being realistic, and I guess I don’t fault her for that, but I feel like she needs to give us a little face time, as well. … Super Tuesday is going to have the most delegates, so it seems like she is putting all her marbles there.”
“We will find out what we need to know online,” said Jolene Teske, a teacher from Des Moines. “If I really believed in them, yes, I’d support someone without seeing them. But when you have somebody coming and talking to you from the porch, it brings value,” Teske said. “We are Iowans.”
Harris herself has pushed back on questions about her commitment to the state.
“Watch me,” she told reporters bluntly at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame celebration Sunday. “I am fully committed to competing in Iowa and working hard to earn the support of the people of this great state. … I’ve benefited from the conversations and listening to Iowans as much as I talk, and so I’ll continue to do that. Because I fully intend to win, and I believe that the people of Iowa are going to be a very important part of that.”
But Matt McCoy, a former state senator and Polk County supervisor who is leaning toward supporting South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg but is open to other candidates, said it’s apparent to most in Iowa that Harris is focused on South Carolina.
“She clearly has a South Carolina strategy and that’s where she’s spending her time, the West Coast and South Carolina,” McCoy said. “And anytime somebody has tried to win the presidency by not going through Iowa, they failed.”
“That, to me, is a flawed strategy,” he added. “And I think that’s why we see everybody else here duking it out. People need to be here to launch themselves properly.”
This dynamic of being interested in Harris but not ready to fully support her was on display in a poll CNN released Saturday, which found Harris had the support of 7% of Iowa Democrats who plan to participate in next year’s caucuses. The result puts Harris behind former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Buttigieg.
Still, the poll also showed that Harris is actively being considered by 32% of Iowa Democrats who are likely to caucus, plus 14% who see the senator as their second choice.
Harris’ campaign aides said they are comfortable with where the senator is in the recent poll and believe a summer full of organizing – helped by the 30 new staffers her campaign plans to bring on – will raise her profile in Iowa. Those aides also point to Harris’ political past: She was a longshot and in a distant third place early in her first race to become District Attorney of San Francisco in 2003; she’d go on to win that race.
“We know that Iowa is critical in this road and we’re taking it seriously,” said DeJear, Harris’ Iowa chair who ran to be Iowa’s secretary of state last year. “I personally would not have even thought of connecting with a presidential hopeful if they weren’t taking Iowa seriously because this state means so much to me.”
Asked about polling that shows Harris behind other candidates in the top tier, DeJear was direct: “I don’t necessarily think that polling is consistent… with the fact that we’re building and we’re taking this seriously.”
‘She has time to change that perception’
Harris spent the past few days in Central and Eastern Iowa, where she delivered a blistering take-down of President Donald Trump at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame celebration on Sunday. Later that day, Harris traveled to Waterloo for a town hall in a church. And then on Monday, she held another town hall in Dubuque.
Trump “claims to be the best president we have seen in a generation,” Harris said at the Hall of Fame event. “Well, I say let’s call Barack Obama because that’s identity fraud.”
DeJear and Harris’ team also benefit from many top Iowa operatives being willing to cut the senator some slack this early in the campaign, even if they do see her strategy as putting Iowa behind other states.
“I am under the impression that it is strategic,” said Alan Feirer, chair of the Madison County Democrats. “I think, in the short term, it is hurting her. I think there are a lot of people who are excited about her and they are waiting to see her. Whereas there are people who were not as interested in (Massachusetts Sen.) Elizabeth Warren, but Warren’s ground game is a role model ground game.”
He added: “I believe that she can (reverse the perception) because I believe she is a quality candidate.”
J.D. Scholten, an Iowa Democrat who in 2018 nearly defeated Republican Rep. Steve King in a longshot bid, said that while Harris is not a name he hears often, that doesn’t mean that won’t change by January.
“Most folks right now are narrowing their pick to three to five people. I don’t hear her name as much, but it’s still early,” Scholten said. “If her campaign is willing to do the work, there’s room for her to shine. She has time to change that perception.”
A day after her speech at the Hall of Fame celebration, Harris’ work began.
“It’s great to be in Dubuque, and I plan on coming back often,” Harris told the sizable audience at an urban farmstead in the river city.
After giving a lengthy stump speech, Harris’ staff told her she wouldn’t have time for questions from the audience. The senator had to rush out of Dubuque to make the nearly three-hour drive to Chicago to catch a flight.
“She’ll be back,” Harris aides said to Iowans who were eager to get photos or interact with the presidential candidate. “She’ll be back.”
As she briefly talked with reporters after the event, Harris got the question that has followed her across the state: How committed are you to Iowa?
“I am completely, from day one, committed to Iowa, to the people of Iowa, to being here, to listening as much as I talk and that is why we have been putting the kind of staff that we have on the ground from day one here,” Harris said. “My commitment to Iowa is very sincere and very deep. And I am happy to be here today.”
Asked if she would be fine with a top three to five finish in the Iowa caucuses in 2020, Harris was blunt.
“I plan on winning the election. Period.”
CNN’s Daniella Diaz contributed to this story.