Senators Harris, Gillibrand and Warren take on 'electability'

PHOTO: Sen. Kamala Harris addresses the 64th NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund dinner, May 5, 2019, at Cobo Conference Center in Detroit, Mich.
NaacpPlayKirthmon F. Dozier/Detroit Free Press via USA Today Network
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Sen. Kamala Harris is taking on the idea of "electability" on the 2020 campaign trail – a concept other females candidates have had to navigate as they seek higher office.

Harris took the issue head-on during her remarks at the NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner in Detroit Michigan on Sunday, the largest NAACP chapter in the country. She took a direct jab at the idea of her chances to move into the White House.

"There has been a lot of conversation by pundits, about the electability. And who can speak to the Midwest? But when they say that, they usually put the Midwest in a simplistic box and a narrow narrative. And too often their definition of the Midwest leaves people out. It leaves out people in this room who helped build cities like Detroit,” Harris said.

Some experts, however, say that politics has changed since the candidacies of former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"The election twice of Barack Obama, as well as the popular vote win by Hillary Clinton, should push back against claims that the country won't elect a woman candidate or the country wouldn't elect a person of color," Kelly Dittmar, a professor at the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics told ABC News, Dittmar says the problem isn't electability, instead it's strategy.

"Candidates have to be strategic because of the Electoral College. So when we think about electability, there's a sort of added layer in," she said adding that the question is whether a candidate can successfully net the electoral college votes needed to secure a presidential win. This was Hillary Clinton's challenge.

Dittmar said "it's far less the question of if they can win. It's much more a question of how they generate the voting base that can yield both their nomination and their potential success."

PHOTO: Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at a town hall gathering, March 8, 2019, in Hemingway, S.C. Meg Kinnard/AP
Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at a town hall gathering, March 8, 2019, in Hemingway, S.C.

After former Vice President Joe Biden entered the crowded field of competitors vying for the Democratic nomination, his forward pitch about the importance of electability and beating Donald Trump has changed the dialogue among the twenty-plus candidates.

But beyond the rhetoric of how the candidates distinguish themselves from the pack on policy and politics, there's often an unspoken quality of candidate appeal, Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University, told ABC News

"There certainly is a racial element of electability. And if you frame it in the context of when they talk about winning, Midwestern voters are thinking of working-class white voters. But I think electability also relates to ideology," Gillespie said. "Is there such a thing as too progressive? Will that turn off centrist voters by the time we get to the general election? I think that that's also sort of a really important component of it."

PHOTO: From left: Sen. Kamala Harris speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Sept. 4, 2018.|Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speaks on Jan. 19, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. AP/Getty Images
From left: Sen. Kamala Harris speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Sept. 4, 2018.|Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speaks on Jan. 19, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Senators Kristen Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren are also addressing the issue of electability. On Sunday, Gillibrand tweeted at length about her record of winning elections.

PHOTO: Sen. Elizabeth Warren greets two children after a rally for airport workers affected by the government shutdown at Boston Logan International Airport, Jan. 21, 2019, in Boston. Scott Eisen/Getty Images, FILE
Sen. Elizabeth Warren greets two children after a rally for airport workers affected by the government shutdown at Boston Logan International Airport, Jan. 21, 2019, in Boston.

“In 2018, I flipped 18 Trump counties in NY. My 2012 vote share is the highest a statewide candidate has won in NY—ever. So yes, I'm “electable.” But I’m also the right candidate to take on Trump because I have the experience, vision and record to win.”

At She The People last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren also took on electability when asked if voters should be confident that America is ready for a female president. She told the crowd of women “This is the heart of it. It’s, how are we going to fight? Not just individually, but how are we going to fight together? Are we going to fight because we’re afraid? Are we going to show up for people that we didn’t actually believe in, but because we were too afraid to do anything else? That’s not who we are. That’s not how we’re going to do this.”

PHOTO: Marianne Williamson speaks at her election rally, June 2, 2014, in Santa Monica, California. Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images
Marianne Williamson speaks at her election rally, June 2, 2014, in Santa Monica, California.

In addition to the idea of electability, Harris touched on race and diversity of the democratic party to the NAACP chapter whos origins date back to the chapter’s founding in 1912. “Our party is not white or black, Hispanic or Asian, immigrant or indigenous. It is all of us. This is our party. This is the America we believe in. And it's America I will always fight for."

Marianne Williams told ABC News "the word strategy is kind of a tough one for me. What I'm trying to do is tell the truth as fiercely and articulately and honestly as I know it." When it comes to the crowded field of competition, Williams who says she needs 4,000 more donors to make the debate stage says "I don't feel like I'm fighting anybody, I don't feel like I'm competing against anybody. I'm running with a lot of really good people."

ABC News' Briana Stewart and Zohreen Shah contributed to this report.

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