WASHINGTON – Top advisers to Senator Kamala Harris made their case to major donors behind closed doors in two meetings in New York on Friday, telling them they were working on defining the California Democrat with a more refined core message.
In the first meeting with a broader group, Harris’ sister and campaign chairwoman, Maya Harris, along with media consultant Jim Margolis, were questioned by some donors on the senator’s stagnant poll numbers in the Democratic presidential primary.
The aides talked up Harris’ key endorsements in early states, appeal to young voters and their view of the vulnerability of former Vice President Joe Biden’s poll numbers, people familiar with the meetings said.
The advisers in the second meeting, with a smaller group of top donors, focused more on the need for voters to know Harris better – and on the campaign’s strategy to accomplish that through clearer messaging of her values and policy positions, the people said.
The meetings in Manhattan drew dozens and included donors from the finance, media and legal industries, among others.
The advisers also discussed the dynamic of the coming third Democratic debate, with all of the top contenders on stage Thursday in Houston, as a welcome change from the last debate, when the lower-tier candidates focused attacks on the higher-polling candidates on stage – Harris and Biden – putting them on the defensive. They also acknowledged that a repeat of her first debate performance would be tough.
Ahead of the meeting Friday, at least half a dozen top donors to Harris’ campaign told The Wall Street Journal that they were looking for her to pick up momentum heading into the fall, when more voters traditionally tune in to the primary.
But some also said they feared the Democratic primary is increasingly becoming a three-way race between Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Some of the donors said they – and others they had talked to – could shift some of their support to Biden if Harris’ poll numbers didn’t start trending upward.
Already, there are about 100 donors who have given $2,800 – the maximum individual contribution per election – to both Harris and Biden, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Federal Election Commission filings.
Harris donors and those close to her campaign said they have been surprised by the resiliency of Biden’s support, especially among African-American voters in South Carolina, which they had seen as a state she could carry, but which has struggled to get a footing in.
A spokesman for Harris didn’t respond to a request to comment.
Some of her backers also criticized the emphasis on national polls, which aren’t reflective of early-state standing.
“She remains stably and securely in the top five,” said Sue Dvorsky, an influential Iowa activist who endorsed Harris last month. “A lot of things are going to happen in the next six to eight weeks, and within that top tier, there’s a lot of fluidity.”
The Harris campaign is ramping up its organization in Iowa and South Carolina in particular, and aides believe a strong performance in those states would give her the needed momentum going into Super Tuesday, where her delegate-rich home state of California is up for grabs.
By Labor Day, Harris had made nine trips to South Carolina and eight trips to Nevada – the most of any of the top-tier candidates to those states. After not investing as much time in Iowa as other candidates, Harris made 17 stops on a five-day bus tour across the state in mid-August, her seventh trip there.
Unlike other candidates such as Warren and Sanders, who are relying mostly on online, small-dollar donations, Harris hasn’t been as successful with her online fundraising and has had to work to maintain her support among wealthy donors to keep up with the top contenders’ quarterly hauls.
During her bus tour across Iowa, Harris’ campaign invited some top supporters to the state where they received a tour of her bus, people familiar with the visit said. Campaign aides also updated the donors on their plans for renewed investment in Iowa and took them canvassing, the people said.
After her bus tour, Harris participated in several high-dollar fundraisers in late August, including with celebrities in Los Angeles and wealthy Democrats in the Hamptons in New York state and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, explaining her position on Medicare-for-all at least one of them.
She has a mix of low- and high-dollar fundraisers scheduled through September including in Los Angeles, Greenwich, Conn., and Nashville, Tenn., according to invitations reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Throughout a mixed summer for her campaign – that began with a big boost when she went after Biden in the June debate and ended with continued skepticism over her health-care plan and a return to her pre-first debate standing in polls – Harris has been keeping major donors in the loop and in some cases allaying concerns.
Some donors even heard directly from Harris by phone in the days following the second debate in July, when she was forced to defend herself repeatedly from both more progressive and moderate candidates on stage, people familiar with the calls said.