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Republicans are divided over how to best attack Kamala Harris

David Catanese, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- On Wednesday morning, Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and a loyal ally to President Donald Trump, joined the pile-on of Republican attacks against Kamala Harris on Twitter, saying she "was a lock 'em up and throw away the key prosecutor."

Hours later, Vice President Mike Pence offered a contradictory critique in a fundraising email by labeling Harris "weak on crime."

The early conflicting messages on Joe Biden's newly minted and historic running mate reveal the latest strategic challenge for Trump's struggling reelection campaign: Whether to cast Harris in traditional GOP terms as a "radical liberal" or attempt to open up a wedge between progressives over her checkered record as a prosecutor in California.

A day after Harris' selection, Republicans are struggling with a unified approach -- much as they have wavered in settling on a single line of attack against Biden himself.

"Biden's record on crime bills and Harris' record as a prosecutor could depress some Democratic turnout," said Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who worked on Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign. "However, if Trump pushes that too far, it undermines the broader narrative that the campaign is trying to establish that they are too liberal and outside the mainstream. You would have to do it in a very targeted way, which is challenging."

At least for the moment, Trump and his allies appear to be attempting the all-the-above approach, decrying Harris as radically liberal, a "phony" without core beliefs, a critic of Biden's record on race and an adversary of Black Americans, depending on who is doing the talking.


But given that a significant pool of voters are just being introduced to Harris -- a first-term senator and the first woman of color to ever run on a major party presidential ticket -- deploying so many messages at once risks diluting the potency of any single one sticking.

While Republicans have instinctively leveled the "far-left" tag on Democrats for decades, Harris' particular political vulnerabilities are tied to a law enforcement career when she often declined to prosecute police officer-involved shootings as California attorney general and supported a law that in some cases led to arrests of parents if their children missed school. Popularity of that hard-nosed approach has waned among members of both parties over the past decade, with even Trump signing legislation intended to fund early release programs for prisoners and reduce racial disparities among nonviolent drug sentences.

Like many in her party, Harris has shifted away from those past positions as incidents of police brutality have garnered more attention from the media and activists. And in the immediate aftermath of Biden's announcement, there was little backlash to Harris across the various wings of the party.

But just as Trump campaign officials seek to tie Harris to Bernie Sanders in one breath, they can't resist hammering her as an overzealous prosecutor in the next.


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