WASHINGTON — As Democrats celebrated an abortion rights win last week, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke confidently from the center of an ornate room at the White House compound, surrounded by Cabinet secretaries and other top officials, with President Joe Biden chiming in remotely while sidelined by the coronavirus.
It was the kind of prominent role many expected Harris to assume when she took the oath of office 19 months ago — one that has so far eluded her.
Harris’ opportunity in the spotlight — albeit on a sleepy summer afternoon — came courtesy of voters in reliably conservative Kansas, who voted overwhelmingly in a statewide referendum hours earlier to protect the state’s constitutional right to an abortion.
“The people of Kansas spoke and said this is a matter of defense of basic principles of liberty and freedom in America,” Harris said of the surprise victory.
The moment offered a glimpse of potential for Harris, who has tried to turn a crisis for Democrats — the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, ending the constitutional right to abortion — into a political opportunity.
Taking command in the battle over abortion’s future, now largely being fought in the states and as an issue in the November election, comports neatly with Harris’ political résumé, touching on her experience as the first woman elected to the second-highest post in the nation and as a former California attorney general and U.S. senator with a longstanding interest in maternal health.
Yet success is far from certain: Democrats are on the defensive in almost every red state in the country; the White House can do little to change the rights of millions of women; and the vice president, who still struggles at times to create punchy sound bites, has chosen to do most of her work on the issue at quiet roundtables, largely avoiding the type of big speeches that allow for inspiring rhetoric and national attention.
“We need a leader on this. No one knows who’s the head of Planned Parenthood,” said Montana state Sen. Diane Sands, an abortion rights activist since the 1960s and one of many Democratic lawmakers and advocates who have met with Harris in recent weeks. “In her body, as a woman and a woman of color, she knows these issues in an intimate way.”
Sands’ state illustrates the complexity of the issue after the fall of Roe. Like Kansas, it’s a conservative state where a woman’s decision to have an abortion has been protected under rights to privacy and autonomy enshrined in its constitution. A November referendum could put limits on abortions, and a Republican-led Legislature is aiming to build a supermajority that could push for a state constitutional amendment.
When she met with Harris, Sands asked for help with practical issues that many abortion rights states are facing, which include shielding doctors from liability for performing abortions on out-of-state patients.
“There’s not one simple solution that’s going to fix it all,” Sands said. “That’s not going to happen.”
Harris has seen that as she’s barnstormed red, blue and purple states, and brought a variety of advocates, attorneys general and others with policy and political roles to the White House in recent weeks to discuss abortion. A recent panel on disability rights, for example, highlighted the added challenges women with disabilities face in leaving their home state to seek an abortion.
Harris’ trip to Indianapolis late last month showed the apparent futility of those efforts in some states. She arrived at the start of a special legislative session in which lawmakers ultimately approved one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country late Friday.
The handful of Democrats who met with Harris were gratified by the attention she brought to their cause. But they are badly outnumbered in the Legislature and could do little but hope that a few moderate Republicans would side with them on expanding measures to allow limited abortion exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life and health of a woman.
State Sen. Jean D. Breaux said she left a meeting with Harris believing the vice president has genuine conviction. The senator also sees Harris jumping on an opportunity.
“It’s great to know we have the support of the vice president on this issue,” Breaux said. But “she’s going to have to do a little more than just be passionate about it.”
If Harris can’t persuade Congress to pass a federal law protecting abortion or find some other way to alter the course of states like hers, “it’s going to make all of this seem a little ineffective,” Breaux said.
Harris faced similar hurdles when she took on voting rights last year, attempting to push back on Republican-led efforts to limit ballot access following former President Trump’s false claims of significant election fraud.
As she has with abortion, Harris traveled the country, holding meetings with advocates. But she and the rest of the Biden administration, contending with narrow congressional majorities, failed to pass a federal voting rights bill or to block state legislation, fueling frustration from many of the activists who met with her.
Beyond the political parallels, Harris has linked the two issues philosophically, noting in her speeches that many of the same states that passed voting restrictions have also sought to limit or halt abortion access. She argues that both issues represent long-standing attempts to strip rights from groups such as women and people of color.
The battle for abortion rights, however, could elicit a wider political coalition than the fight for voting rights, which drew passion from Democratic activists, but did not inspire as much support from less engaged Democrats, Republicans and independents. The vote to uphold a right to abortion in Kansas, a state that Trump carried by about 15 percentage points in 2020, underscored the potential to galvanize a bigger group of voters.
Despite hitting several key states in the abortion debate in recent weeks, Harris did not visit Kansas before the election. During a panel discussion in Massachusetts on Thursday, she praised leaders of the Kansas abortion rights campaign for reaching beyond a core Democratic base with a message emphasizing personal liberty and rejection of government overreach, values that resonate with libertarian voters.
“They spoke loudly and said it doesn’t matter who [a woman] voted for in the last election or who she plans on voting for in the next election,” Harris said. “Don’t take her rights from her and allow the government to replace its priorities for her priorities.”
Republicans and advocates for restricting abortion access have so far said they are not worried about Harris’ activism, choosing instead to highlight verbal gaffes, real or imagined, that she makes during her roundtable events.
“She’s meeting with small groups of people. This is making it to the daily news headlines. It’s not this mainstream thing to Joe Lunch Bucket and soccer moms,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative group that lobbies on social issues.
Stemberger said the discussions could help Harris shore up her political base, but he does not believe they will affect policy in states like his, which Harris visited twice in recent weeks.
After a draft of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade, was leaked in May, Harris took her message to a larger audience.
“How dare they!” she said at an event in Washington, D.C., for Emily’s List, a political group focused on electing women who support abortion rights. “How dare they tell a woman what she can do and cannot do with her own body.”
It remains her most passionate speech on the subject to date, one that captured the raw anger and disbelief that many women have felt since the spring. Though Harris has not delivered that type of rhetoric since then, it could return as the November midterm elections draw closer.
Harris’ advisors say she is taking an all-of-the above approach in her work on abortion — making the broad political case for access, pushing for administrative actions to protect rights to abortion medication and interstate procedures, and marshaling attorneys to volunteer their time in the states. Her team notes that in some states, helping to elect a few more legislators or to keep a Democratic governor in office could stymie restrictions on abortion.
But to achieve congressional action at the national level, Democrats will almost certainly have to make gains in the November elections, a feat that political handicappers say is unlikely.
Laphonza Butler, the president of Emily’s List and a longtime political ally of Harris who helped encourage her to take on the issue of abortion, said there’s “an urgency of the moment” that gives the vice president little choice.
“Can she make a difference? Can any of us who are doing the work make a difference?” she asked. “We won’t know unless we try.”