A little-noticed vote cast last year by Sen. Kamala Harris angered her fellow Democrats, but it also gave her a way to stand out from the crowd on the key issue of immigration if, as expected, she seeks the party’s presidential nomination in 2020.
Defying President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in wall funding is a unifying message for Democrats with the 2020 campaign already under way. But in February 2018, Democrats were willing to grant Trump $25 billion to build a barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border in exchange for giving young undocumented “Dreamers” a path to citizenship.
Harris was one of just three Senate Democrats to reject that deal, provoking the anger of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, colleagues and some immigration activists, according to two people familiar with the matter. Some of them suggested that Harris already had 2020 in mind.
“At the time, some of my friends were saying: Do you guys see a 30-second ad coming in the primary? ‘I was more against the wall than you were because I voted against that compromise,'” said Frank Sharry, a pro-immigration activist who runs the group America’s Voice, which backed the compromise. “Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar voted for it. Sherrod Brown voted for it.”
Harris is expected to announce her plans soon. Warren and Gillibrand have already taken their first steps toward a formal bid for the Democratic nomination, while Booker, Sanders, Klobuchar and Brown have given indications they are considering joining what could be the biggest Democratic primary field in a generation. As many as a dozen other current or former officeholders have either declared or said they’re weighing campaigns.
In the early stages of the primary race, one of the biggest challenges for candidates who aren’t Sanders, who vied with Hillary Clinton for the 2016 nomination, or former Vice President Joe Biden will be setting out for voters how they’re different from the others.
The 2018 immigration deal fell six votes short of the 60 it needed as Republicans fell in line with Trump, who opposed it because it didn’t include cuts in legal immigration. Eleven months later, Democrats control the House, and Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have come around to Harris’s position — no wall money under any circumstances.
“Senator Harris was on the right side of history when it came to that vote,” said Symone Sanders, a Democratic strategist and former aide on the 2016 primary campaign of Vermont Senator Sanders. “That’s a winning message, particularly now when the government has been shut down and the president is throwing a temper tantrum for his wall.”
Harris’ vote captures the message underpinning her hopes of being the Democrats’ standard-bearer to challenge Trump — a refusal to compromise with the president’s “America First” agenda, along with an unapologetic pro-immigration message. A Californian of Jamaican and Indian descent, Harris’ road to the nomination likely runs through her delegate-rich state, where the Latino population outnumbers whites, and among black voters nationally who were pivotal in nominating Clinton in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2008.
Harris, 54, is expected to announce her plans soon. Her spokeswoman Lily Adams declined to comment on the angry reaction to her 2018 vote among Democratic colleagues, saying that the senator “did what she thought was right,” and voted alongside New Mexico Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich.
“With any vote she takes in the Senate, she looks at all the evidence, does her homework, and does what she believes is the right thing to do. This one was no different,” Adams said. “She didn’t believe it was the right thing to do to put any money toward this border wall. And it’s a position that she holds to this day.”
In her statement at the time, Harris said that “$25 billion for a border wall is a waste of taxpayer money” and that she refused to provide funding that could “be used to implement this administration’s anti-immigrant agenda.” Immigration advocates were split, though, on whether the wall money was a fair compromise for protecting Dreamers — young people brought illegally to the U.S. as children.
“I thought it was a gamble because there was enormous pressure on Democratic senators to take this deal,” Sanders said. “It was a very contentious time and the grassroots wing of the party — the extra progressive folks like MoveOn, Indivisible — they were urging Democratic senators to hold the line. They were saying don’t give in, we need real protections for the Dreamers, and they said don’t give a cent for the wall.”
In contentious primary campaigns, candidates tend to use every available advantage to draw contrasts and one-up their opponents among voters. Having caused the longest government shutdown in modern times, the issue of immigration and Trump’s border wall will be important to Democratic voters likely to turn out during the primaries and caucuses that will choose the party’s nominee.
Sharry said that even with Democrats in lockstep against Trump’s wall, using the 2018 vote as a way to pull ahead of competitors isn’t without risk for Harris.
“You know what I think she’d get in response?” Sharry said. “A Cory Booker saying, ‘Well, you voted for your political future, I voted for the Dreamers’ future.'”