INDIANOLA, Iowa—The 35-year-old white woman is gripping Kamala Harris’s arms, looking right at her.
“Everything that was in my head,” she says, “was coming out of your mouth.”
It’s 3 o’clock on a Monday afternoon, 30 minutes south of Des Moines, on the top floor of a bar that doesn’t start serving drinks for another hour. Obviously, the only reason a senator from California is here is because she’s running for president. They all know that. This is Iowa. That’s why they’re here.
But for now, Jenny Ostem is still more focused on the Kavanaugh hearings a month ago than the caucuses a year and a half from now. On top of everything else of the past few years, she tells Harris, she feels like giving up.
Harris has been getting a lot of this lately—in Iowa, but also everywhere she’s been, and in the airports in between, from women across ages and races. Crying. Saying thank you. Telling her their own stories.
She puts her hands on Ostem’s shoulders.
“No, no, no,” the senator says. “Keep it going.”
“It’s really difficult to be a woman in this environment,” Ostem says, after letting the next person in the crowd step in for a selfie. She’s there with her mother, who’s 66 and says she’s looking for hope, too, but doubts “they” will elect a woman. “For so many of us that are emotionally empty, people like her help me keep the fight up.”
Part of the reason senators tend to face-plant running for president is because it’s hard to show them doing their jobs. They vote; they make speeches on C-SPAN that no one watches. They’re all in Washington and of Washington, talking about cloakrooms and points of order. They pop up on the Sunday shows and recite talking points.
In a year and a half as a senator, with a combination of good committee assignments and luck, Harris pressed Jeff Sessions into saying he was “nervous” about Russia’s contacts with the Trump campaign, squeezed Mark Zuckerberg for not knowing Facebook had sold 87 million people’s data, and voiced exasperation at Brett Kavanaugh both before and after the Christine Blasey Ford accusations came out. All on live TV. All on issues that grabbed the nation’s guts.
The question most conversations about the 2020 Democrats boil down to is simple: Who can really go up against Donald Trump? The answer can get existential and anxious; it can lead to despair about whether the lost voters can ever be won back, or calculations about who would appeal where.
But really, it’s about imagining them up on the debate stage together. What does that look like? Who could take him on?
“Let’s speak the truth” is the core of the stump speech Harris landed in Iowa with—about racism and anti-Semitism and homophobia being more real than people want to admit, about the Dow Jones and great employment numbers meaning nothing to people who don’t own stocks or are working multiple jobs to keep up. She makes a sideways reference to what it means for America to be great. She has a Trump impression that’s meant to be bad, an indistinct voice making haughty claims. “Let’s take a look at what they’ve been peddling,” she says, when she talks about last year’s Republican tax bill. Tell the truth about student debt, she inserts when she’s speaking on college campuses. “We are a country that pretends to care about education, but not so much the education of other people’s children, and we need to deal with that,” she told a man in Waterloo who asked about schools.
“It’s about diagnosis and then there needs to be treatment, right? That’s also speaking truth—the diagnosis: You have cancer. So that is the truth, now let’s deal with it: What’s the treatment required? To deny it and not speak the truth means to let it fester,” she explained to me later, after doing her speech a bunch of times at a carefully plotted schedule at big and small events around Iowa, just in from South Carolina and Wisconsin, on her way to Nevada, Georgia, and Florida before Election Day. “Let’s speak these things, because it is a prompt to say, ‘Are we all on the same page with this?’”
She draws a connection between speaking truth on any of these issues and her history working with sexual-assault victims when she was starting out as a prosecutor—a point that’s been sharpened in her own mind in the past few weeks.
“Nobody wants to have that conversation, and as a result of not having that conversation, we’ve not dealt with it as an issue,” Harris said. “So, let’s speak that truth. It is real. Because guess what? Unless we say it even just that way, people will choose not to believe it is real.”
Her message clearly resonated with Ako Abdul-Samad, an Iowa state representative who attended three events with Harris on Monday. “She’ll bring an element of real talk that we need,” he said.
Harris’s whole manner and even just the tone of her voice are a constant Can you believe this? eye-roll. Fans love her because of how she zeroes in on weak spots, though former staffers and others who’ve dealt with her in private can sometimes get to tears talking about how withering she can be. She never makes a secret of who and what she doesn’t think much of.
So, Harris’s answer to how she’d be on the debate stage with Trump: as a prosecutor for president, a prosecutor of a president, who doesn’t have much patience for the people who parse the differences among the president’s lies and false claims and fabrications. “My mother used to have many sayings,” Harris said, “and one of them was, she’d say, ‘A man kills another man. Thousand reasons why that happened. The man is still dead.’ It’s still a lie.”
The title of the book she’s finishing up, out on January 8 to coincide with the campaign, is The Truths We Hold.
And she’ll be running, she and her team assume, in the shadow of the report Robert Mueller is expected to put out and whatever new indictments might be coming along with it.
Among the words Harris likes to use is bullshit, and so I tell her it sounds like she’s almost trying to make her campaign slogan, “Enough With This Bullshit 2020.”
She smiles, a little deviously.
“I really like that …” she says, letting the last word drag out.
Later she returns to the point. She doesn’t want to be cornered.
“It’s not for the sake of calling bullshit. That’s easy to do. One could argue that if it’s about calling bullshit, it’s about being a contrarian or even an obstructionist or a cynic, who can do all of that,” Harris says. “My point is that the discussion is a means to an end, and the end is to solve a problem. If we can’t agree on the premise, we’re not going to get to the point of solving a problem. It’s almost like establishing a premise—can we all agree we’re here? Let’s start here, so we can get to you on the next stage.”
Her first night in Iowa, Harris brought in 300 people to a Polk County Democrats event, or as the local Democratic chair Sean Bagniewski shouted excitedly to the volunteers backstage (as well as Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, whom he didn’t recognize, and apologized to later), “That’s a big fuckin’ crowd.”
“All good!” Emhoff responded on Twitter. “What a fantastic event.”
Tuesday afternoon, at the Old Brick Church in Iowa City, Harris spoke to close to 400 people, standing room only, with a lot of Iowa University students, but women with walkers up front, too. Hillary Clinton did an event in the same room there in December 2015. About 200 people showed up, mostly union members and seniors, seated on folding chairs, a path roped off for her to get to a podium to speak. Harris finished by leading a growing crowd of students down a hill to the place where she thought they’d be able to vote early, though the building turned out to be closed. She took more selfies. She signed a copy of Quotes for Nasty Women. She answered a student who asked her about why she’d taken corporate donations and took apart the question, explaining why the young woman had the facts wrong.
America in 2018 is a place where Donald Trump is the president and the Democrat who gets talked about as the strongest candidate for the nomination against him is a half-Indian, half-Jamaican woman from Oakland.
Harris and her team aim to keep it that way.
People were talking about her running for president even before she won her Senate seat. She wasn’t one of those people who thought much about that. She didn’t feel it. She and her staff were surprised by the response to that first committee hearing with Sessions, and things started changing. Real preparations for a campaign began in the spring, but it’s still weird for her.
“Dear Lord,” she said when she recognized her face and 2020 on a T-shirt as a man unzipped his fleece walking up to her after a small rally at the University of Northern Iowa on Tuesday morning.
“Well,” the man said, after they posed for a photo, “are you going to run?”
“One day at a time,” Harris said.
When she makes the campaign official, the expectation is she’ll unleash the massive email list she’s built and try to bank millions in the first few months, so she can lock in early as a front-runner while the rest of the seemingly endless Democratic field remains a scramble.
She will lean into the new primary calendar that, along with the sidelining of superdelegates who used to be able to shape the nomination, will take shape in ways no one is quite sure of. It’s not just that her home state of California, where she’s immensely popular, now has its primary right after the traditional first four states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. It’s that, because of early voting, in California, as well as in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Texas, Virginia, Tennessee, and Vermont—all scheduled for that first Tuesday in March—people will be voting before the results are in from those first four states.
In a field that for the first time ever will have multiple women, multiple African Americans, and multiple progressives, she’s looking to draw support from each of the traditional lanes.
Her prospective opponents are hoping she does what front-runners usually do: burn bright, then burn out. They are impressed with her, but wonder if it’ll matter that she has a reputation for being mean—the people who say it insist that they’re not just falling into the typical sexist trap, that it’s something more—or standoffish, or that for all her experience being a prosecutor, she hasn’t really had much management experience. She’s tried to head off the complaints that she’s not substantive enough, and last week introduced a bill that immediately became a centerpiece of her stump speech: a $6,000 tax credit to families making less than $100,000. People are already digging through her old cases again. True to form, Trump allies have started seeding questions about the spike in city homelessness while she was district attorney of San Francisco.
When Harris wants to draw a person in, she turns on a big laugh. Her default for entering rallies is that laugh, which she does while clapping, a sort of Aw, shucks, for me? mixed with a tactically deployed sense of warmth. She has perfected running over and over again through a speech stacked with lines that each time sound like ad-libs—like when she seems to all of a sudden come up with the phrase “lovely dust” to explain what politicians usually try to sprinkle crowds with instead of the truth, or when she stops herself toward the end to say that she actually has two concluding points.
What she doesn’t do much is talk about herself. There’s one passing reference in the stump speech to her parents meeting as activists at Berkeley in the ’60s, but it’s really just a way to connect what’s happening today to the civil-rights movement, part of a larger point. She said goodbye to the mother of a baby in a gray fleece onesie who showed up at one of her events and told her that “my parents brought me to rallies when I was that age,” but she didn’t linger on it.
Only when she was pressed by a reporter in Indianola to “tell us more stories from 2008!” did she talk about the last time she was in the state, volunteering for Barack Obama ahead of the caucuses that year, and about the old woman she thinks she helped convince to show up at a caucus site by talking to her through a crack in the door at the senior home.
When I mention that reluctance to her, she starts interrogating the questions.
“I think about issues and I want to talk about issues. I think that’s what people want,” she says, “as opposed to people like me, thinking about me.”
She deploys the laugh. It’s a long one. She picks up her iPhone and pretends to be posing for the screen.
She keeps the laugh going.“No!” she says. “That’s not what people want. That’s not what they need.”
Harris’s younger sister, Maya Harris, who ran the ACLU for Northern California and was the top policy adviser for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, was along for the Iowa swing to take notes and to have her own chats with voters. At one point she slipped a tissue into the senator’s hand when the cold weather was getting to her. Harris says that being the older sister gave her a protective instinct, which is part of what got her interested in being a prosecutor in the first place, and is why she specialized in sexual-assault cases when she was starting out.
But she wasn’t prepared for the past few weeks with all the women, all the hugs.
At the same time, her inner circle has been surprised at the improvement in how she’s been delivering her speeches, how she’s been wrapping her head around actually doing this.
“The way that I feel at that moment is, I want to give them whatever strength I can give them. I want them to know that they will not be harmed anymore,” Harris told me when I caught up with her later on the trail. “And so what I say often, is, ‘We’re all in this together, and we will not be silenced, and we will not be bullied.’”