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When Kamala Harris lost on election night, but won three weeks later

Her nail-biting 2010 victory for California attorney general raised her national profile

Kamala Harris, here campaigning in Los Angeles in September 2010, came under fire in her race for state attorney for her record as San Francisco district attorney. (Jason Redmond/AP file photo)
Kamala Harris, here campaigning in Los Angeles in September 2010, came under fire in her race for state attorney for her record as San Francisco district attorney. (Jason Redmond/AP file photo)

This is the fourth installment in “Battle Tested,” a series analyzing early campaigns of some Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nomination. Earlier pieces focused on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Cory Booker and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

In November 2008, Kamala Harris was sprinting through Burbank airport with her campaign adviser, Ace Smith.

Harris, then San Francisco district attorney, had just launched her campaign for California attorney general with a statewide media tour and barely made the flight.

“She was not completely happy about that situation,” recalled Smith, who is now advising Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign. “And I said, ‘Well, here’s the deal: That’s what this race is going to be like. That’s how close this is going to be.’”

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Harris ended up winning that 2010 election by less than a point, or just over 74,000 votes out of more than 9.6 million cast.

Her victory as California’s first female, first black and first Asian American attorney general came three weeks after her Republican opponent, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, had declared victory on election night. Smith still has the San Francisco Chronicle headline declaring Cooley the winner framed in his office.

Some see that victory as proof that Harris, a first-term senator who has already pushed her way into the crowded presidential primary’s top tier of contenders, can defy the odds: She won a race that few thought she could, as a black and Asian woman from liberal San Francisco who opposed the death penalty. Others say she was the beneficiary of outside factors, like that year’s Democratic wave in California.

“In essence, there’s some truth on both sides,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political science professor at the University of Southern California.

Facing the doubters

Harris, whose campaign said she was not available for an interview, doesn’t talk much about her 2010 race on the presidential campaign trail. But that race presented similar challenges to her presidential run, including doubts about her electability. She told The Associated Press earlier this month that those doubts are “not new to me.”

To overcome them, Harris said, “You win.”

Few analysts believed Harris had a shot in 2010. Democratic strategist Garry South, at an event at the University of California, Irvine, predicted that Cooley would win, saying the odds were against Harris as “a woman who is a minority, who is anti-death penalty, who is district attorney of wacky San Francisco.”

Other California Democrats agreed, noting Harris did not fit the mold of past attorneys general, who were all white men.

Harris referenced South’s claim in her memoir, “The Truths We Hold,” writing, “Old stereotypes die hard.”

She also faced the challenge of boosting her name recognition across the massive state. But her base in the Bay Area, with its engaged and reliable voters, was an advantage in the seven-way Democratic primary, where her opponents were mostly from Southern California.

One of those opponents was future Rep. Ted Lieu, the first member of Congress to endorse Harris for president.

Lieu’s takeaway from facing her in 2010? “Don’t run against Kamala Harris,” he told CQ Roll Call.

He said negative attacks didn’t stick to Harris, even as her chief opponent, former Facebook general counsel Chris Kelly, hammered her in television ads over a scandal involving San Francisco’s crime lab.

A technician stole cocaine from the lab, tainting hundreds of cases. The scandal has received new scrutiny in her presidential race, and Harris told The Washington Post in March that, while police oversaw the crime lab, she took responsibility for failing to inform defense attorneys.

Harris won that crowded 2010 primary with nearly 34 percent of the vote, with Kelly ending up third with 16 percent. But Harris and her team knew there was a fight ahead.

“The calculus changed entirely when Cooley got in the race, because he was somebody who had been elected three times countywide in Los Angeles,” said Brian Brokaw, Harris’ 2010 campaign manager.

County district attorney elections are nonpartisan, so Cooley didn’t have to run as a Republican in those campaigns. But Brokaw said Cooley’s base and name recognition in L.A. was still problematic for Harris.

“Our reward for emerging through a very tough primary was an even tougher general election,” he said.

All eyes on L.A.

Harris’ team knew that Los Angeles County, and particularly minority voters, would be key to her victory.

The county had the most registered voters in the state, with more than 4.4 million in 2010, or 10 times that of San Francisco County. More than 2.2 million L.A. County residents cast ballots in the 2010 attorney general race that November, compared to 261,000 from San Francisco County.

KamalaHarris atty margin-01 (1)

So in the final weeks of the race, Harris and supportive outside groups zeroed in on L.A.

California Democratic strategist Mac Zilber recalled the Service Employees International Union launching an independent expenditure campaign in South Los Angeles. (The head of the SEIU at the time, Laphonza Butler, is now an adviser to Harris’ presidential campaign, Zilber noted.)

The African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project launched a six-week voter registration, direct mail and grassroots campaign in L.A. County to target “Obama surge voters,” or first-time voters from 2008, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. An analysis by the University of San Francisco found that more than 30 percent of the surge voters hailed from L.A. County. A narrow majority of them were people of color.

Democrats were looking to turn out the coalition that delivered the state to Barack Obama in 2008, and California was one of the rare places that year where touting the president was a positive for Democrats. Obama, who had known Harris since his 2004 Senate race, endorsed her in 2010 and traveled to California to rally Democrats in late October.

A quote from Obama’s endorsement adorned a wall on Harris’ field office on Crenshaw Boulevard in L.A., the San Francisco Chronicle noted.

Opening a field office was an unusual move for a statewide campaign in California, which doesn’t involve much retail politics given the state’s size. But Harris was insistent her campaign have an office in L.A., quizzing the staff weekly about when it would open, Brokaw recalled.

The comparisons between Harris and Obama persisted in news coverage of the attorney general race, with Harris often referred to as the “female Obama.”

Two years earlier, Harris had been among the first California elected officials to endorse Obama in the presidential primary; she launched her attorney general run eight days after his historic 2008 victory. She is currently at the same point in her Senate tenure as Obama was when he ran for president, launching a presidential bid two years into her term.

Her connections to Obama and her clear charisma boosted Harris’ profile and earned her national media attention in her race to be California’s top law enforcement official. Even then, she faced questions about whether she would run for national office someday.

“It’s one step at a time,” Harris told NBC’s “Today” show in 2009.

LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 21: Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley speaks about current and former City of Bell council members who were arrested on corruption charges during a news conference on September 21, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. Cooley said the eight officials who included the former mayor and former city manager, misappropriated more than $5.5 million in public funds for excessive salaries and illegal personal loans. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Republican Steve Cooley attributes his loss to Harris in 2010 to California’s strong Democratic lean. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images file photo)

Down to the wire

The Democrats at the top of the 2010 California ticket, gubernatorial nominee Jerry Brown and Sen. Barbara Boxer, began to pull away from their GOP opponents in early fall. But the attorney general race remained neck and neck, with Harris trailing Cooley by a few points in public polling and a sizable share of voters still undecided.

In their debate, Harris cast the race against Cooley as “the choice between defense of status quo and innovation.” She emphasized her “smart on crime” initiatives, which aimed to combat the root causes of crime and reduce recidivism.

Cooley’s campaign portrayed Harris as a leftist with little regard for the law, and focused strongly on her decision in 2004 not to pursue the death penalty against a gang member who shot and killed San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza.

“That became sort of a litmus test for her in terms of her radical views on criminal justice,” Cooley said in a recent phone interview.

Harris pushed back on charges that she was soft on crime by touting her record as a prosecutor.

“I will not cede my law enforcement and crime fighting credentials to anyone,” she told Oakland’s Fox affiliate KTVU in October 2010. “There are a whole lot of people spending a whole lot of time in state prison because of work I’ve personally done in the courtroom.”

A few Democrats noted that a key point in the race came in a debate — not unlike the current presidential race, where Harris’ onstage confrontation with former Vice President Joe Biden last month solidified her status as one of the top candidates.

In the 2010 debate, Cooley said he would accept his L.A. pension while serving as attorney general, noting that the attorney general’s salary was “incredibly low.” Harris responded by saying, “Go for it, Steve,” before laughing.

Her campaign cut Cooley’s answer into a 30-second television ad, and it put “every single last dollar we had behind that ad in L.A. county,” said Brokaw, her campaign manager.

Brokaw said the team knew the race would be close and didn’t expect a call to be made election night.

So they were shocked when Cooley declared victory shortly after polls closed, making a V sign with his right hand. The San Francisco Chronicle also published a story saying Harris had lost.

Harris and her team monitored the vote count through the night. By the next day, she had pulled ahead by less than 15,000 votes and Cooley had canceled his postelection press conference. Three weeks later, Harris was declared the winner.

Helped by a wave?

Cooley views Harris’ narrow win as the product of pure partisanship, with other statewide Democratic successes trickling down the ballot to her. He also asserted, without providing evidence, that there may have been voter fraud with provisional ballots, which other California strategists dismissed.

And while he had previously won three nonpartisan elections for Los Angeles County district attorney, the attorney general’s race was the first time he was on the ballot as a Republican, Cooley noted.

“We were a little naive in the sense we thought merit would win out, that [with] my historic success in Los Angeles County, people would go, ‘That’s our guy. He may be an ‘R,’ but he’s our guy,’” he said. “And no, it ended up being more of a partisan thing.”

Some Democrats and political observers made similar arguments.

“That was the Democratic vote coming home to vote for a Democrat,” said veteran California strategist Bill Carrick, who was a consultant for one of Harris’ 2010 primary opponents and her 2016 Senate opponent, former Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

South, the Democratic strategist who had picked Cooley to win, said in a phone interview that his prediction wasn’t entirely wrong, given the extremely close margin. Harris won 46.1 percent to 45.3 percent, while all the other Democrats running statewide won by double digits. 

South said Team Blue’s statewide dominance was “well embedded by the time we got to 2010.”

“I just don’t think that most of us thought it was so deeply embedded that it could pull Kamala Harris through that race,” he said. “But it turns out we were we were wrong in that regard.”

Brokaw conceded that Cooley was hurt by running statewide as a Republican, but he said it was a “lazy argument” to blame that for his loss.

“She just simply out-worked him,” Brokaw said. “History was against her. The electoral dynamic was against her. Everybody just assumed that the Democrats [were] going to win all the statewide races, except for that one.”

“That was the conventional wisdom,” he added, “and she defied it.”


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