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Republicans had months to prepare for a Harris pick but their message is muddled

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: FILE: Joe Biden Selects Senator Kamala Harris As Vice Presidential Running Mate
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at a hearing at the Capitol Building on June 25, 2020.Pool / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden’s pick of Kamala Harris to be his vice presidential nominee yesterday made history — and it was also widely viewed in the political world as the likeliest choice.

Which is why it’s so surprising that Republicans seemed so unprepared with a strategy to define her.

The GOP’s messaging on Harris was mixed from the start. Is she a finger-in-the-wind pol or a hardened leftist? Power-hungry or just a “puppet” of radicals? “In lockstep” with Biden or causing a “liberal revolt” from disappointed progressives?

Is she actually “against everything that Black Americans are screaming about today” because of her record as a prosecutor? Or is she soft on crime and “marching in the streets with the BLM organization”?

We heard versions of every frame yesterday afternoon, sometimes even in the same press release.

Republicans also didn’t really touch one of the most standard lines of attack about almost any VP pick, particularly a freshman senator: Questioning her resume and her qualifications to serve as president if needed. Considering that Biden’s biggest concern in making the pick was passing the “Ready on Day One” test, the GOP seemed to cede the readiness argument entirely, at least in the first 24 hours.

But what maybe struck us most was that President Trump’s own assessment of Harris was — for the president, anyway — pretty generic.

At a press conference, he said she supports “socialized medicine” and that she ran a poor presidential campaign. At another event last night, he broadly dinged her record on “your Second Amendment,” military funding and veterans.

To our ears, that sounded a lot less like a well-considered strategic attack and more like a photo negative of the cut-and-paste endorsements he often offers little-known downballot Republicans on Twitter.

In 2016, Trump managed to brand his opponents so bluntly that a single adjective (“Crooked.” “Low energy.” “Little.”) became a stand-in for their actual names.

But now, Republicans have been struggling for months to settle on one coherent argument against Biden. And despite having months to prepare for an argument against his veep, the same muddle is happening with Harris.

Why a virtual convention may blunt one of the most effective arguments against Harris

One thing that makes Harris so hard to define for Republicans is how much she struggled to define herself during the Democratic primary.

She was never at home with the Sanders/Warren wing of the party — as evidenced by her clarifications (and reclarifications) on Medicare for All. And her indecision on how to address her record as a prosecutor ended up leaving hard feelings with progressive advocates unhealed.

As mentioned above, one of the (conflicting) strategies Republicans have in their toolbox is to highlight that dissatisfaction on the left with Harris, with the aim of depressing enthusiasm among young and minority progressives.

The thing is — that dissatisfaction is real, and it *could* be consequential. But there’s also a legitimate question about how much it will be muted — not just by the mixed messaging of Republicans — but also by the pandemic.

After all, there won’t be a convention hall filled with reporters seeking out Sanders delegates eager to express their displeasure with Harris on the ticket.

And fewer unscripted events will give both Biden and Harris fewer opportunities to make unforced errors on a highly-charged issue where both have stumbled before.

So, how does it play in Detroit, Milwaukee and Philly?

The choice of Harris says a lot about representation for women of color — but it also lays down a marker for the Democratic Party about avoiding 2016’s blunder with Black voters.

Hillary Clinton’s narrow loss to Trump wouldn’t have happened without her underperformance with Black voters in swing state cities like Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Detroit.

And there are plenty of signs that, even with Biden leading Trump 80 percent to 6 percent among Black voters in our latest NBC/WSJ poll, he’s been in danger of suffering from the same soft Black support and tepid enthusiasm on Election Day.

So: How does the choice of Harris play in those key areas, in those key states, with those key voters?

Ad Watch with Ben Kamisar

The Trump campaign returned to Wisconsin airwaves on Tuesday, Advertising Analytics shows, marking the first time the campaign aired significant TV or radio advertising in the state in two weeks.

Trump’s campaign spent $110,000 there yesterday, and it’s slated to spend the same today.

But while the campaign has returned to Wisconsin airwaves, it has been off the air in both Pennsylvania and Michigan for at least two weeks (since 7/29 in PA and 7/22 in Michigan, and even before then, its spending in Michigan had been dwindling).

The Trump campaign announced last month it would briefly pull ads to review its ad strategy, and it returned to the air days later touting a new focus on North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Arizona ahead of early voting.

But that new strategy so far hasn’t included the Great Lakes states key to Trump’s victory in 2016.

2020 Vision: Another Squad member easily beats back a challenge

Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar easily defeated her well-funded challenger in last night’s primary, making her the third member of “The Squad” to fend off a Democratic opponent who called her national profile a distraction from her constituents.

The win means Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib will all return to Congress next year.

Elsewhere in last night’s primaries, northwest Georgia voters are set to send Marjorie Taylor Greene to Congress. She’s the QAnon supporter who was recently blasted by her own party’s leaders for her racist and anti-Islamic videos. (Just when House GOP leaders were relieved to get Steve King off the Hill, too!)

Tweet of the Day

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

5,167,431: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 59,735 more cases than yesterday morning.)

165,666: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 1515 more than yesterday morning.)

63.25 million: The number of coronavirus tests that have been administered in the United States so far, according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

20.3 million: The number of worldwide coronavirus cases, per Johns Hopkins University.

17 percent: The portion of parents in America who say their children will be attending school “fully in-person” this fall, according to new data from the NBC|SurveyMonkey Weekly Tracking Poll.

925: The number of students and staff in quarantine in Georgia’s Cherokee County School District weeks after it tried to resume in-person classes, according to the New York Times.

Nowhere fast

Talks are still halted on the Hill when it comes to coronavirus relief, and there’s no real indication when they might restart.

Yesterday, per our Hill team, Senate leaders mostly traded blame.

The talks “have not reconvened. We’re waiting for the Democrats to indicate some interest in getting an outcome,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

“Now Leader McConnell is blaming Democrats for the breakdown in negotiations, using the exact same language. He said Democrats are the ones saying my way or the highway. Seriously, that's what the Republican leader [said] who wasn't even in the room and won't dare go in the room,” Minority Leader Schumer said.

And while President Trump had told Americans that his executive orders would give unemployed Americans a $400/week federal weekly benefit (down from the $600 people had been receiving), the White House is now backtracking and saying they’ll only dole out $300.

“We modified, slightly, the mechanics of the deal,” economic adviser Larry Kudlow said in a Fox News interview. “So initially – and states can still if they put another $100 in to raise the benefit more generously, that's fine, it's up to them. Any state who put in $100 before for unemployment benefits, and every state did, they will then qualify for the extra $300.”

The Lid: We’ll always have Harris

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at what the Harris pick might mean for the rest of the 2020 campaign.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world?

Russia will give its medics its coronavirus vaccine in just two weeks even though the vaccine hasn’t completed the full trial phase.

Great Britain is now officially in a recession, with its economy shrinking 20.4 percent between April and June compared to the first three months of 2020.

Puerto Rico’s primary elections have been roiled by issues, leaving voters without answers days later.

More college football conferences are postponing the fall season, pushing the sport closer to a shutdown.

The Wall Street Journal reports that TikTok violated Google policies with secret data collection efforts.