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Politics & Policy

As Biden enters do-or-die weekend, San Francisco considers the Kamala Harris question

If the vice president became the Democratic nominee, she would be the first-ever politico from the Bay Area to serve as a major party's candidate.

A man in a blue suit and a woman in a gray suit walk in front of a backdrop with the U.S. flag and text promoting affordable healthcare.
Source: Peter Zay/Anadolu/Getty Images

Despite Joe Biden’s public assurances on Friday that he plans to stay in the presidential race, some Democratic party leaders are acknowledging that Vice President Kamala Harris could be the best option to lead the ticket if the embattled president chose to step aside. 

Speculation is growing that Harris—an Oakland native, prolific fundraiser and natural successor to Biden—may give Democrats their best shot at beating former President Donald Trump in November. Harris would become not only the first-ever Black woman to become a major party presidential nominee but also the only one from the Bay Area. Even in deep-blue San Francisco, many voters called for Biden to be swiftly replaced after his abysmal debate performance set off a wave of panic among Democrats.

A political consultant who works with major Democratic Party donors and top party officials said that since last week, a “distinct shift” in momentum has begun to favor Harris.

A woman in a black outfit speaks passionately at a podium adorned with the Seal of San Francisco, with colorful flowers in the foreground and ornate doors behind her.
If she became the Democratic nominee, Vice President Kamala Harris could take advantage of donor relationships she's built up over the years since her political career started in San Francisco in the 1990s. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

“Everybody’s biggest priority is to beat [Donald] Trump, and I’m not aware of any major Democratic donor or leader who truly believes that Joe Biden is the best person to defeat Donald Trump,” the source said on Wednesday. “I’m sure there are a couple, but I’m not aware of who they are.”

Is Harris the right pick to help Democrats avoid a doomsday scenario in which Republicans seize the White House—and possibly Congress, if Biden drags down Democrats in down-ballot races? That’s the question weighing on many anxious voters searching desperately for a new Democratic Party standard-bearer. 

“The biggest fear is losing the House and Senate and the White House, and there are no checks and balances,” said the Democratic Party political consultant, adding that such a sweep would be “scary to even a lot of Republicans.”

High anxiety over the presidential race

“I think [Biden] should be in a convalescent home,” said Ryan Sandoval, an employee of the city’s public bathroom program Pit Stop, outside City Hall on Friday. 

“He needs to take care of his well-being more than the presidency,” said Sandoval, who is leaning toward voting Republican this fall because of the apparent disarray in the presidential race. “I mean, he could barely even say a word.”

Mical Woldemichael, who was in the midst of a Zumba class at Civic Center Plaza on Friday, said Biden should step aside if he is unable to communicate effectively. 

“If he can step down and give someone else an opportunity to be the voice for the people, I would recommend someone who’s actually listening to young people,” she said, adding that Gov. Gavin Newsom or Harris would be the easiest option to transition into the role.  

A former San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and U.S. senator, Harris would present a stark contrast to Trump in a fall election centered on existential questions about American democracy.

San Francisco State University political science professor Jason McDaniel said Harris would help unite the party compared to choices he perceived as riskier, such as Newsom or Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose national political profile hasn’t yet been tested like the vice president’s. 

A man in a white shirt and tie with rolled-up sleeves stands beside a woman in a navy blazer. They are smiling amid a crowd holding "Vote No" signs.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is viewed by some as a possible replacement for Biden, though political analysts say the vice president has been better tested at the national level. | Source: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

McDaniel said that Harris could also attract Black voters, who are a critical piece of the Democratic base. She would also be best positioned to inherit the some $91 million the Biden-Harris campaign has on hand.

If she were to replace Biden, Harris would inherit challenges that few political candidates have had to overcome in American history: She’d have to rally a Democratic Party barreling toward an August convention, a Republican nominee who is leading in the polls and questions about her favorability among undecided voters. The Democrats are also trailing in fundraising behind the Trump campaign, and Harris would need to rapidly corral campaign cash. 

A document reportedly circulated among Democratic Party operatives and major donors this week argued that Harris’ political deficits are “real but addressable” and noted her advantages, such as her appeal with younger, minority voters. 

Despite the chatter, Harris has stood by Biden in her public statements. “The President is and will remain our party’s nominee, and Vice President Harris is proud to be his running mate, and looks forward to serving at his side for four more years.” said Brian Fallon, Harris’ campaign communications director.

When reached for comment, the Biden campaign pointed to the president’s speech Friday in Wisconsin. “I’m not letting one 90-minute debate wipe out three and a half years of work. I’m staying in the race, and I will beat Donald Trump,” Biden told rallygoers. The campaign also provided a list of officials have spoken up in support of Biden staying in the race, including Newsom.

Some worry about Harris’ electability.

Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

“I just don’t think America’s ready for Kamala,” said Robyn Buckingham, who was at City Hall celebrating her son’s marriage on Friday. She compared the situation to some of the attacks 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton received as the first female nominee of the Democratic Party. 

“America is not ready for a woman. Period,” she said. 

Harris’ roots in California—which has become a target for Republicans due to the state of homelessness and high cost of living—could also be a double-edged sword. Home to ultra-wealthy individuals and companies, California is a powerful engine for Democratic fundraising. But its reputation as a progressive bastion could present an easy line of attack for opponents. 

“California has a reputation, like it or not, of practically falling into the ocean,” said Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University. “There are a lot of people who look at it with great skepticism.”

There are also questions about Harris’ favorability among progressives, given her extensive background as a prosecutor, though SFSU’s McDaniel doubts it would hurt her candidacy considering the stakes in November.

A woman in a business suit and pearl necklace sits in a leather chair, smiling slightly. Behind her are bookshelves filled with law books.
Then-San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris posed for a portrait in San Francisco in 2004. | Source: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

“I think that political moment has passed,” he said. “That kind of factional element would be muted.”

Others felt the need to expand the net to other potential candidates. Reeng Lam-Vasquez said she wants Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, while her husband chose Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But Harris, she said, would be good enough considering the person on the other side of the ticket.

“I’m fine with her,” said Lam-Vasquez. “Anybody who is not the other guy.”

Bay Area fundraising powerhouse 

If Harris were the nominee, she could tap the deep wells of Bay Area cash that powered her first presidential bid and prior campaigns for local and state offices. 

When Harris ran for San Francisco district attorney, her first contribution came from Elaine McKeon, chair of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. More—much more—poured in from donors with last names like Fisher, Getty, Buell, Haas and other noble houses of the Bay Area. WomencountPAC, a group co-founded by Esprit co-founder Susie Tompkins Buell, was among the top contributors to Harris’ 2020 presidential bid, accounting for about $100,000 in donations. 

During that campaign, Harris hauled in hundreds of thousands of dollars from employees of University of California, Mountain View-based Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Stanford University. She generated $9.6 million from 5,674 individual donors from San Francisco, according to the Federal Elections Commission.

Multiple framed photos are displayed on a mantel, with the prominent one showing two smiling women holding hands. Other family and group photos surround it.
If the vice president became the Democratic nominee, she would be the first-ever politico from the Bay Area to serve as a major party's presidential candidate. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

In previous statewide races, she attracted money from Silicon Valley heavyweights such as Ron Conway, who is currently helping fundraise for San Francisco’s moderate Democratic coalition. Other supporters include former Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, former Apple executive Jony Ive and Salesforce leader Marc Benioff, whose skyscraper in downtown San Francisco has become a fixture of the city’s skyline.

Harris has also visited the Bay Area multiple times over the past year, using issues like reproductive and LGBTQ rights to galvanize voters against Trump. In March, Harris brought a who’s-who of San Francisco politicos to the Pacific Heights mansion owned by Robert Mailer Anderson and Oracle heiress Nicola Miner. 

In June, Harris joined Mission District café owner Manny Yekutiel and well-heeled philanthropists and political organizers Shannon Hunt-Scott, Stacy Mason and Sheila Thompson in fundraising efforts. The vice president also visited at the beginning of this month, gathering with donors at the Nob Hill condo of real estate executive Susan Lowenberg.

As of Friday, Harris assuming the top of the Democratic presidential ticket remains firmly in the realm of speculation. Biden, who forcefully insisted he was staying in the race in a Friday speech, would need to willingly end his candidacy, releasing all of his delegates ahead of the party convention in Chicago next month. 

“I don’t subscribe to the idea that Joe Biden can’t defeat Trump,” said Sam Lauter, a former staffer to Biden in the U.S. Senate who is now a partner in BMWL Public Affairs, in an interview Wednesday. “He’s the only person who has.”

However, Lauter added that if Biden were to voluntarily step down from the ticket, Democrats would be treading on dangerous ground by not rolling with Harris as the nominee.

“To skip over our African American vice president would be a tactical mistake,” Lauter said. 

Calmatters contributed to this report.
Gabe Greschler can be reached at