WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris' central role in warning about threats to abortion rights has been tested anew amid a fresh fight over abortion access. It comes after years of concerns about her role in the administration as the White House seeks to keep pressure on the issue and galvanize voters ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
The White House combats renewed Republican efforts to curb abortion through the courts with Harris as the unflinching face of a battle to protect what it sees as a cherished women’s right, according to interviews with two dozen present and past administration officials, Democratic strategists and people close to Harris.
Abortion has already proved to be a winning issue for Democrats across the country. The party capitalized on it in the 2022 midterm elections and, earlier this month, won a sharply contested Wisconsin Supreme Court race that hinged partly on abortion access. Inside and outside the White House, Democrats see abortion as a political issue that could help juice voter turnout in the coming election, paint Republicans as extremists and raise the low approval ratings plaguing both Harris and President Joe Biden.
With Biden away in Ireland, Harris led an administration task force meeting at the White House on Wednesday, rolling out new privacy protections meant to thwart efforts to sue or investigate those who facilitate abortions. Tuesday she is set to travel to Reno, Nevada, and lead a roundtable conversation on reproductive health care.
Harris has hosted scores of events since it became apparent last year that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade. Looking ahead, she is set to hold at least one event a week focused on reproductive rights, a person familiar with the matter said, keeping the issue front and center.
Abortion figured to be a flashpoint in the election from the moment a leaked draft copy of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade became public. And it gained renewed urgency when U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk issued a ruling that suspended the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the abortion pill mifepristone, a medication that has been on the market for 20 years and makes access to early-term abortion easier and less expensive.
The Biden administration hopes to overturn the ruling on appeal, cautioning that if the order is allowed to stand it could set in motion a backdoor national ban on abortion.
“We are having an experience where the women of America, in particular, have been in a state of fear about what this means for them and what this means for the people they love,” Harris said as she opened the task force meeting.
Biden needs her to deliver on the defense of abortion rights. A White House official said the West Wing wants Harris to succeed and that it hopes her taking the lead will boost her own standing.
Washington has been awash in speculation about Harris since the moment she and Biden took office — with quiet sniping that she isn’t up to the job. In reply, her defenders say such criticism is unsubstantiated and has undertones of racism and sexism.
Harris’ approval rating is stuck below Biden's. She stands at 39%, according to the Real Clear Politics average of surveys taken — five points below Biden’s approval rating.
Still, Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster and political analyst, said that Harris’ ratings reflect Biden’s and that they rise and fall together. “The idea that her approval numbers are the problem when his numbers are underwater is kind of missing the forest for the trees,” Belcher said. “No vice president in modern history’s numbers are going to be better than the guy who’s at the top of the ticket.”
That said, some believe if she improves her image by promoting an issue uniquely important to women, younger voters and the Democratic base, she can give the ticket a lift. One Democratic fundraiser who said he respects and supports Harris recalls multiple conversations with donors while seeking contributions for an event in Pennsylvania. Over and over, people would say: “I hope he [Biden] is going to make a change in the ticket,” the person said.
He’s not; the two play complementary roles and she’s a favorite of constituencies important to the Democratic Party, her allies said.
After two years spent waiting and watching with some frustration to see if Harris would grow into the role, Biden advisers increasingly recognize that his fate and hers are intertwined, a senior administration official said. They are pinning their hopes on reproductive freedom as an issue that might prod voters to give Harris a fresh look.
'Are you kidding?'
The mifepristone case presents an opportunity of sorts. It opens a new front in the battle over personal rights — one with profound implications for the upcoming presidential race, Biden advisers and Democratic operatives said. If the Trump-appointed judge’s ruling is allowed to stand, conservative judges could upend the scientific grounding the FDA now uses to approve medications, administration officials warn.
Other drugs that Americans use to maintain their health could be yanked from the shelves. Women living in states that have outlawed abortion wouldn’t be able to obtain the drug through the mail, a barrier that could potentially force them to carry a pregnancy to term.
“So, you might have thought the abortion issue had died down a little in terms of activating voters,” said Celinda Lake, who was one of Biden’s top pollsters in 2020. “But this guarantees that it doesn’t die down.”
No other senior Biden administration official is as credible as Harris when it comes to abortion rights, Democratic strategists argue. It’s an issue that she understands on a visceral level as both a woman and a former prosecutor who handled sexual violence cases. Last year, when the draft Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization leaked, Harris was in a West Wing office with her chief of staff at the time, Tina Flournoy.
"Are you kidding?" wouldn’t do justice to Harris’s astonished response, Flournoy recalled. Harris mulled whether striking down the ruling would imperil other privacy rights that most people assumed were inviolable. And she began thinking aloud about the potential repercussions of Roe’s fall, including whether certain medications might be banned.
Aides needed to start preparing for the aftermath, she told Flournoy.
When the court officially overturned Roe the following month, Harris was on a plane flying to Illinois for an event on maternal health. A former aide described a “shocked” Harris standing throughout much of the flight and reading through the decision line by line as she openly criticized what she saw as the “extreme language” of the court’s majority opinion.
In the months after the decision leaked, Harris hosted 40 events devoted to abortion rights, her staff said. She visited 13 college campuses and gave interviews to 20 local media outlets. For all the meet and greets, her personal approval ratings did not improve.
Yet many Democrats say Harris’ work on abortion helped drive the party’s success in the 2022 midterms.
“She took up that mantle and that fight, and that made all the difference in the world for Democrats up and down the ticket and that's not going away,” Belcher said. “She is a credible woman at the very top, who can give voice to this in a way that none of the other men can.”
Christopher Huntley, a Democratic strategist who worked as a speechwriter for Harris last year, added that focusing on abortion allows Harris to lean in to “freedom and the future,” which he believes “really animates” her.
“Her lived experience is able to shine through as a woman, as a woman of color,” Huntley said. “There’s this sense of shared struggle and shared empathy that a woman will have on this issue that men will just never be able to directly connect with.”
No one else at the highest levels of the Biden administration can speak to the abortion issue with comparable conviction, Democratic strategists said.
'A perfect storm'
Biden and his health secretary, Xavier Becerra, are both seen by many as imperfect messengers to some degree.
Biden is a devout Catholic who has wrestled with the issue. He has staked out a position in favor of abortion rights, though in his long Senate career, he cast votes opposing federal funding for most abortion services.
One former Harris aide who requested anonymity to describe Biden’s views put it bluntly: “I think he is personally pro-choice but not personally OK with talking about it every day. He gets all the issues, but it’s probably not language or talking points that he has spent a lot of time using. No one ever would specifically say what his issue was, just that she is far more comfortable on this topic and this issue. So it makes sense that she would focus on this issue.”
In an unwanted distraction, Becerra misspoke during a CNN appearance earlier this month while discussing the mifepristone ruling. Asked if he was taking it off the table the option of advising the FDA to ignore the court ruling on mifepristone, Becerra said: “Everything is on the table.”
That position seemed at odds with Biden’s bedrock pledge to restore democratic norms. What Becerra had meant to say is that every legal option was on the table, a department official told NBC News. The department clarified Becerra’s comment in the hours after he made it.
Worrisome as it is, the mifepristone case comes at an auspicious time given the election calendar, Harris’ allies believe. Republicans are on the wrong side of the abortion issue, they argue, with potential GOP presidential candidates championing a clampdown on abortion rights as they try to court the party’s base. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican presidential candidate, quietly signed a bill Thursday that would ban most abortions in the state after six weeks.
In a speech Friday before the National Action Network, a group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, Harris took an unmistakeable swipe at DeSantis, citing his "Freedom Blueprint."
She didn't mention DeSantis by name but made reference to the restrictive abortion bill he signed the day before.
"Just yesterday in Florida, extremists there signed a six-week ban before most women even know they're pregnant," Harris said. "And then, isn't it interesting that in the midst of all these attacks on fundamental freedoms, these so-called leaders dare to tell us they are fighting for our freedoms? Don't you find that interesting?"
On Saturday, Harris made a surprise appearance at a Los Angeles women's march.
"This moment, I believe, is the next phase of a movement," Harris said at the speech. "And we have all been called to help lead this movement, to fight on behalf of all of the people who have so much at stake."
Polling has shown that a majority of Americans opposed the court’s ruling that struck down Roe, while 62% want abortion to be legal in all or most instances.
But the case also comes at a convenient time for Harris. She has faced fierce criticism for her handling of other topics including the root causes of migration.
A former Biden administration aide said it was no secret that Harris, who was not as steeped in foreign policy as the president, was wary of taking on the migration issues when Biden gave her the assignment in the early days of the administration.
In this case, many supporters say Harris is focused on a topic that both aligns with her personal experience and animates voters.
“If you’re an undecided voter in Wisconsin or Michigan, and Vice President Harris is telling you about why it’s important to build a rail station between two places, that’s an important thing but that may not sway you,” said Jamal Simmons, who worked for a year as Harris’s communications director. “One thing we learned in the course of the last year is that this isn’t just a Democratic issue. It affects women and the people who love them across ideological and geographical lines.”
Leah Daughtry, a Democratic political strategist with close ties to Harris’ office, said that the ongoing battle over abortion rights is a “timely coincidence.
“All of these things collide in a perfect storm of opportunity that will have an impact on the upcoming elections,” Daughtry said of abortion politics.