All eyes on Kamala Harris as pressure mounts for Biden to step aside

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the 100 Black Men of America conference  in Atlanta on Friday, June 14, 2024.   (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the 100 Black Men of America conference in Atlanta on Friday, June 14, 2024.   (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

When Kamala Harris walks on stage Saturday for a moderated conversation at the 30th Essence Festival of Culture in New Orleans, it will not be unfamiliar territory.

In front of a crowd that will largely be comprised of Black women, Harris is scheduled to sit down with Essence Magazine President and CEO Caroline A. Wanga to talk about the “common goal of the United States at the forefront of the agenda.”

It will be Harris’ first major address since President Joe Biden received numerous calls to step aside as the Democratic presidential nominee, following his widely criticized debate performance against former President Donald Trump.

Harris’ appearance at Essence also comes less than 24 hours after Biden sat Friday night with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos for a high-stakes interview, addressing questions about his mental and physical fitness heading into November.

FILE - Vice President Kamala Harris embraces President Joe Biden after a speech on healthcare in Raleigh, N.C., March. 26, 2024. Harris has been the White House's first line of defense after President Joe Biden's faltering performance in last week's debate with Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Matt Kelley, File)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

As Biden’s vice president, Harris has emerged as a potential replacement candidate if he leaves the race. But while speculation has grown since the debate, Harris has refused to discuss the possibility of anyone other than Biden leading the ticket.

“Look, Joe Biden is our nominee,” Harris said Tuesday in an exclusive interview with CBS News. “We beat Trump once, and we’re going to beat him again, period.”

Harris went on to say: “I am proud to be Joe Biden’s running mate.”

Biden reiterated Friday that he was not stepping down.

This will be Harris’ third appearance at the festival as vice president, having spoken about wealth and power in 2022, and reproductive freedom and the maternal health crisis last year.

Kamala Harris was greeted by her sorority line sisters at the 2019 Essence Festival.

Credit: Howard University Alpha Kappa Alpha Archives

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Credit: Howard University Alpha Kappa Alpha Archives

But this year’s appearance carries much more weight. New polling shows her outperforming Biden in a hypothetical matchup with Trump.

Marsha Archer, president of Atlanta-based M-Squared Public Relations, is visiting New Orleans for the Essence Festival. She said Harris’ appearance there could be crucial.

“She is very popular amongst Black voters, but there are some people who are either undecided or don’t plan on voting, especially in that younger audience,” said Archer, a volunteer for the Biden-Harris 2024 campaign.

“I have told every young person I encounter that the time is now to get involved. The time is now to speak up, So Kamala obviously gets that, with a wide range of ages available at the Essence Festival that she will be able to reach.”

While editorial boards have been vocal in calling for Biden to step aside, most prominent members of the president’s party have remained publicly silent in the debate’s aftermath or issued short statements of support.

Georgia Democrats — notably Sen. Raphael Warnock and Congresswoman Lucy McBath — have remained steadfast behind Biden.

But behind the scenes, major party donors, elected officials and Democratic Party insiders are saying it might be time for the 81-year-old Biden to step aside.

On Friday, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) was attempting to assemble a group of Democratic senators in order to convince Biden to exit the presidential race, according to The Washington Post.

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, said a change of candidates this late in the game is fraught.

“Regardless of whether Biden remains the Democratic nominee, he has to shore up support among base constituencies like Black women to ensure that they turn out at high rates,” Gillespie said. “A demobilized Black electorate will cost Democrats the election even if those who vote, vote 90% Democratic because it’s just not enough of them.”

Harris also stood beside Biden Thursday at the White House’s Independence Day celebration, pledging her full support.

“We give thanks to our commander-in-chief, the president of the United States,” Harris said Thursday while saluting service members, veterans and military families. “The extraordinary President of the United States, Joe Biden!”

In a press briefing this week, while sidestepping questions about whether Biden should step aside, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called Harris, “the future of the party.”

U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and staunch ally of Biden, said in an interview this week he would support Harris if she steps in for the president.

But he later outlined a process to replace Biden that would include a “mini-primary” featuring Harris, governors, and others in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention in August.

While Biden trails Trump in the polls, a post-debate CNN poll found Harris in a statistical tie with Trump. That same poll shows that 50% of female voters back Harris over Trump vs. 44% for Biden.

Before the debate, as Biden’s support among Black voters began to wane, Harris was deployed across the nation to help shore up the campaign’s support with its most loyal constituency. She also made more than 60 trips this year, visiting 20 states to speak about race, the war in Gaza and abortion rights.

“The focus is not on the person but the vision and the things that separate the Democratic vision from the Republican vision,” Archer said.

“There are no audiences that can go unvisited or untapped at this point. She has to talk to everyone because, while there is division amongst us, she can change minds.”

Having visited the city five times, Harris has made Atlanta a regular stop on her tour. In June, Harris spoke twice in Atlanta in the span of one week.

Vice President Kamala Harris leaves a Juneteenth Block Party campaign event outside her new campaign headquarters in Atlanta on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Louisiana will be the 21st state she has visited this year. Regardless of whether she steps in for Biden, she appears motivated to address issues important to Black women voters.

Long considered the backbone of the Democratic Party, Black women are again expected to play a major role in a presidential race against Trump.

Gillespie said the Democratic Party will have to consider Harris’ appeal to Black women voters if Biden steps aside.

“Democrats don’t want to alienate Black women voters, who would object to Kamala Harris being overlooked as a replacement for Joe Biden,” Gillespie said.

“But there are also likely concerns that as a Black and Asian woman, Vice President Harris will be subjected to a particular type of vitriol that could upend her campaign. Democrats are weighing all of those considerations as they assess their chances and calculate the risks of replacing Joe Biden if it comes to that.”

Next week, Harris will deliver a keynote address in Dallas at the 71st Boulé, the annual convention of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the oldest Black Greek letter organization for women in the world. Harris is a member of the sorority.

On July 24, she will travel to Indianapolis to speak at the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.’s Grand Boulé.


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