How the Kamala Harris Pick Changes the Race in Wisconsin
The choice of U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate could help attract more voters to the Democrats’ ticket, including those of color who turned out in low numbers during the 2016 presidential election. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Harris is seen as a historic pick that could energize the base, mobilize nonwhite voters, and court centrists in this critical swing state.

The choice of U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate could help attract more voters to the Democrats’ ticket, including those of color who turned out in low numbers during the 2016 presidential election in Wisconsin and elsewhere, political analysts and others said Wednesday, one day after Harris was picked as vice president. 

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton notoriously neglected to make even a single campaign stop in Wisconsin during the 2016 campaign. That lack of engagement, especially in the Black community in Milwaukee, led to decreased voter turnout and ultimately contributed to Clinton’s narrow defeat in Wisconsin of about 20,000 votes.

Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, a Milwaukee-based Black voter mobilization organization, said voter apathy shouldn’t be a problem with Harris on the Democratic ticket. 

“Senator Harris represents a lot of firsts in U.S. history and that will energize folks,” Lang said.

Harris is the first woman of color on a major party’s presidential ballot, and is the daughter of immigrant parents. Her mother immigrated from India, and her father from Jamaica. Harris embraces both cultures but identifies simply as American, a reflection of the nation’s melting-pot roots.

“At the moment when the entire history of migration and slow sedimentation through which America is built, when that is being erased, having a candidate like that becomes important,” said B. Venkat Mani, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for South Asia. “It sends a strong message that … you can have a migrant heritage, and you can be an American. And what better place to think about it than Wisconsin, which was built by German migrants?”

Biden’s choosing a woman, especially one of color, as his running mate was a wise choice, said Rev. David Huber, pastor at Plymouth United Church of Christ in Eau Claire. Systemic racism and other struggles Blacks and others face in this country has become part of mainstream discussion in the wake of George Floyd’s May 25 death at the hands of Minneapolis police. 

But Biden’s picking Harris may have been more than a pragmatic decision, Huber said. Harris “is a really strong, smart, driven, engaged woman,” he said, “who is very capable” politician.

“I think (Biden) realized it’s time we actually have a woman have some voice in the leadership of this country,” Huber said. “The time has come.”

Jerald Mast, a political science professor at Carthage College, said that while vice presidential picks typically do not have much of an effect on elections, Harris’ presence on the Democratic ticket may have a greater impact.

“Biden is the oldest nominee in history,” Mast wrote in an email. “And so naturally, voters will look at Harris with close attention to the chances she will take the torch in the near future.”

Biden, 77, privately told his aides late last year that he would only serve one term, Politico reported in December. Biden will be 82 at the end of the next presidential term, which raises obvious concerns about his longevity even if he only serves a single term.

Biden has a well-documented voter-enthusiasm gap, and that extends to Wisconsin. He is viewed unfavorably by 48 percent of Wisconsin voters and favorably by just 43 percent, this week’s Marquette Law School Poll found. Michael Hansen, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, wrote in an email that Harris could be the push some voters needed to get excited.

“The choice of Harris as VP might motivate African American communities that were otherwise uninspired by Biden as the presidential candidate to turnout, wait, or request an absentee ballot,” Hansen said.

The naming of Harris as vice president is likely to increase Democratic turnout, in part because she is a vibrant public speaker who could help inject a sense of excitement into Biden’s campaign, said Geoffrey Peterson, chairman of the UW-Eau Claire political science department. 

“In a normal election year, I would be almost certain she would increase turnout,” Peterson said of Harris, “as she is an exciting speaker and appears to be a very good campaigner. But COVID potentially throws a wrench in all of that.”

Art Cyr, a political science professor at Carthage College in Kenosha and the director of the A.W. Clausen Center for World Business, said he was surprised by the pick because Harris did not poll well with Black voters during her presidential run.

However, Cyr wrote in an email, “Senator Harris could provide important help in swing states with a relatively significant African-American population, including North Carolina, Michigan, and Pennsylvania along with Wisconsin.”

Progressives have targeted Harris’ mixed record as a prosecutor in California, first as the San Francisco district attorney and then as attorney general. For several years of her tenure as attorney general, she kept her office from interfering in officer-involved-death investigations and was incredibly dogged on prosecuting marijuana offenses.

“Despite it being historic, some folks are disappointed Vice President Biden has chosen someone with a law enforcement background,” Lang said. “Ultimately, we can criticize and analyze all we want, but we need to remain focused at the goal at hand, which is defeating Donald Trump.”

Most Black people Huber knows, he said, are excited at the choice of Harris, although some have expressed misgivings about Harris’ actions as Attorney General in California related to policies for prison inmates, many of whom are Black. Her presence on the Democratic presidential ticket could increase Black turnout in Wisconsin and elsewhere, he said, but that is difficult to predict.   

“There is so much motivation now (among Democrats) to vote for someone who isn’t Trump,” he said, “so it may be hard to tell whether they voted for Biden and Harris or against Trump.”