If Harris truly is the “last voice in the room,” as Biden suggested she would be when he introduced her in Delaware on Wednesday, her influence — and California’s — could be profound. Reagan brought Caspar Weinberger, Ed Meese and Lyn Nofziger from California to Washington. And in heavily Democratic California, there are far more Democrats where those figures came from.
“California has been too often irrelevant in national politics since Ronald Reagan left in 1988,” said Ace Smith, who was a top strategist on Harris’ presidential campaign.
“With a major Californian ascending in a national office, that just has ripple effects,” he said. “My prediction: More Californians in higher positions in the coming decades than you’ve seen literally since the Reagan era.”
In California this week, Democratic politicians who disliked Harris resigned themselves to her success, privately recasting their criticisms of her in more favorable lights. Those who have supported her for years saw their prospects improve. Everyone imagined a Washington that might not sneer at the state’s energy or water challenges, or suggest its wildfires could be prevented by raking.
Describing what he called a Washington “prejudice against California” — a recoiling from the state’s economic and cultural status in the world — Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said, “I think with a vice president from California, you’re not going to see that kind of disinterest or disdain for the West.”
“We’ve always had, at least in the last half-century, tremendous legislative power,” Schiff said. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, among other influential lawmakers, come from California. “But what we’ve lacked is power in the executive branch, and with Kamala, we will now have both.”
It’s not just California poised to gain influence if Biden and Harris win. Though the state is hardly representative of every state west of the Rockies, it does anchor the liberal coast. In Washington, Jamal Raad, a veteran Democratic strategist who advised that state’s governor, Jay Inslee, in his presidential campaign last year, said, “It’s frankly preposterous that it’s taken this long for someone from the West to be chosen for the ticket.”
For Republicans, the idea of a California Democrat in the White House is a nightmare. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel called Harris “an extreme San Francisco liberal,” recalling years of criticism in which Republicans have put down Democrats by yoking them to the liberal reputation of the state.
But even that practice is no longer as effective for the GOP as it was a decade ago, when California was in the throes of its budget crisis and its liberal approach to issues such as gay marriage and marijuana were not so broadly accepted elsewhere.
In a tacit acknowledgment of the changing landscape, Trump campaign officials privately expressed before Harris’ selection that they would have preferred Biden pick another contender. Susan Rice, the former national security adviser, would have allowed Trump to relitigate the Benghazi scandal, a major feature of the 2016 presidential campaign. A more progressive selection, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, would have done more than Harris’ California pedigree to paint Biden as beholden to the party’s left flank.
Geography certainly didn’t factor into Biden’s thinking. California is so heavily Democratic that Biden could have carried the state in November with a stuffed animal as his running mate. And though campaign strategists have largely abandoned the idea that a vice presidential nominee can deliver a major battleground state, had Biden thought he needed a geographical lift, he could have selected Rep. Val Demings of Florida, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan or Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.
Instead, California got Harris. And if she becomes vice president, said Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, “We’ll have somebody in the White House.”
“I think it’ll benefit California,” he said. “This is her base.”