Harris turns to maternal health in California as White House wrestles with midterm message

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Vice President Kamala Harris, pictured here delivering a speech at Vandenberg Space Force Base on Monday, is due to speak on maternal health in San Francisco on Thursday. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Vice President Kamala Harris is due to return to her hometown of San Francisco on Thursday to highlight her longstanding interest in maternal health, capping a quiet week in California as the White House grapples with how to sell its policies ahead of a deadly election season mid-term. .

The long distance from Washington may be a welcome reprieve for Harris, but risks seeming out of touch with the bleak outlook for the White House, which is struggling to deal with rising inflation and high gas prices, issues that are at the heart of voters.

Still, the visit to California provides a political advantage for Harris, providing an opportunity to speak about something that resonates with the Democratic base.

“We should talk more about health care. It’s our biggest economic problem,” Celinda Lake, a veteran Democratic pollster, said.

Vice presidents have always struggled to establish an independent identity while supporting the president’s policies. Harris is no exception, and she’s taken on two tough assignments — tackling the root causes of migration in Central America and pushing back on voting restrictions in Republican-controlled states. The White House has failed to make much headway on either, and Harris has sought to engage in other policy areas she is familiar with, such as maternal health.

Harris has advocated throughout her political career to improve health care for pregnant women. As a senator, she sponsored bills that would spur improved maternal outcomes and educate doctors about implicit racial bias, which contributes to higher death rates among women of color during pregnancy and childbirth. childbirth. Last week, Harris held the administration’s first cabinet-level meeting on efforts to improve outcomes for pregnant women.

For the vice president, who sometimes appears scripted in public appearances, the opportunity to discuss the administration’s work on maternal mortality rates is a low-risk opportunity to demonstrate his policy mastery on a topic that is particularly significant for core Democratic voters such as black women.

“This is an initiative in which she has a substantial history, a huge personal stake,” said Nathan Barankin, who served as Harris’ chief of staff when she was a California senator and attorney general. That’s true of his other postings, he said, but “the distinguishing feature of this one…isn’t one that’s mired in decades-long partisan fighting.”

Thursday’s maternal healthcare event will feature a speech by Harris after touring a UC San Francisco healthcare facility and meeting with families and waiting healthcare workers. She will be joined by Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and London Breed, mayor of San Francisco, according to a White House official.

Much like President Biden, who makes frequent jaunts to his native Delaware, Harris also seems to crave the comforts of home. The vice president arrived in California on Monday, delivering a speech at Vandenberg Space Force Base before attending a political fundraiser in Los Angeles. Harris took advantage of two days without public events in Los Angeles. The vice president, who grew up in the Bay Area, and her husband, Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, have a home in Brentwood.

At a time when Americans are frustrated with rising prices and concerned about crime, however, Harris’ trip to California focused on maternal health could be seen as a missed opportunity to speak out on issues that matter to voters.

“It seems to me to be playing not to lose rather than playing to win,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “Sending her to places she knows well, dealing with issues she knows well but might very well not be voting issues, while ignoring parts of her portfolio that are a bleeding wound for Democrats. , like the border right now.”

Biden and members of his administration have fanned out across the country to convince voters he has made enough progress on issues like infrastructure and the COVID-19 pandemic despite a lack of larger national pledges. Harris also traveled the country highlighting administration programs and legislative accomplishments.

Despite these efforts, they’re getting crushed in the polls — even in his own deep-blue California. A new poll from the UC Berkley Institute of Governmental Studies found that respondents continue to view Harris more negatively than positively, with 35% of voters approving of her performance and 45% disapproving of her. In the same poll, which was co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, 50% of California voters approved of Biden while 46% disapproved, a slight improvement for the president since February when the previous IGS poll was taken.

Democratic pollsters, however, argue that maternal health care and related issues are a good campaign issue. Lake, the Democratic pollster, pointed to the 2018 midterm elections, when a focus on health care helped Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives.

Health is the top issue for Democratic voters ahead of the midterm elections, with 74% saying it’s very important to their vote, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last month. Only 44% of Republicans said the same. Health care ranked third among the top issues for all voters.

Maternal health care, Lake said, touches on three aspects of a key Democratic formula for addressing midterms: winning more women than they lose men, targeting women over 50 — a key vote – and mobilize the base.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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