When Sen. Kamala Harris made her first trip to New Hampshire, she attracted an enthusiastic crowd of more than 1,000 people who braved a treacherous February snowstorm to see the person vying to become America’s first black female president. But as the California senator returns to the state this week, she’s in a more challenging position.
The number of Democratic presidential candidates has swelled to nearly 20 since her first visit. Some of the spotlight has shifted away from Harris, with attention being lavished recently on Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s expected entry into the race this week will further reshape the contest.
But Harris faces a more fundamental hurdle in New Hampshire: skepticism from some over whether she’s fully committed to courting voters in the nation’s first primary state. Democrats here famously expect intimate, regular access to candidates. For now, they say they aren’t getting that from Harris and are warning her to take the state more seriously.
“I don’t think she’s been there as much as she should be,” said Peter Hoe Burling, a former Democratic committeeman in New Hampshire. “Yes, I understand it is outrageous how New Hampshire presumes to expect the presence of a person running for president, but we do. We’re very good at evaluating the character and programs that individual candidates bring.”
Some of Harris’ rivals are outpacing her in the Granite State. Since the beginning of the year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of neighboring Massachusetts has made nine trips to New Hampshire. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke has been here twice. Buttigieg has made five trips and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has made four.
As she returns, Harris is sharing the spotlight with other White House hopefuls, a sign of how it’s becoming increasingly difficult to break through the crowded field.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is campaigning in the state, too, his second New Hampshire visit this year. Harris and Sanders were among the five candidates participating in back-to-back town halls in Manchester that aired on CNN Monday night.
Harris backers rejected the notion that she’s paying too little attention to New Hampshire.
An aide to Harris, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy, said her campaign has paid special attention to mobilizing students at colleges and universities across New Hampshire. On Tuesday, she is holding town halls at Keene State and Dartmouth College.
She’s also raising money on behalf of New Hampshire Democrats. On her first trip here, Harris held a private meeting with Joyce Craig, the mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city. When Craig formally announced her re-election bid, Harris emailed her list of supporters to cultivate donations to Craig’s campaign.
Harris has also sent fundraising emails for New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Chris Pappas, among others.
On Monday, she signed onto a petition led by Shaheen condemning a state law requiring college students to be permanent New Hampshire residents in order to vote. She’s hired an in-state staff that includes veterans of New Hampshire politics, including campaign director Craig Brown and political director Meredith Shevitz.
Harris spokesman Ian Sams noted that Hillary Clinton made the first Granite State swing of her 2016 campaign four years ago this week. While Clinton ultimately won her party’s nomination, it was Sanders who won New Hampshire — with a commanding 60% of the vote.
Harris is aware of the issue. Her February appearance — her first-ever to New Hampshire — drew a large crowd to Portsmouth’s historic South Church, where she told attendees that she wanted to address the “elephant in the room.”
“I intend to compete in New Hampshire,” Harris said. “I intend to spend time here. I intend to shake every hand I possibly can.”
Crowds cheered for her support of “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, as well as her support for replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. She also said she supports changing laws to allow same-day voter registration and to make Election Day a national holiday.
But the day after the trip, Harris told “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah that the first question she received from in-state media was about whether she planned to compete in the state.
“And what no one said, but the inference was, well, the demographic of New Hampshire is not who you are in terms of your race,” Harris told Noah.
The reporter who asked the question has said it was not motivated by demographics, but the exchange has sparked a local debate.
If Harris “thinks she’s going to win New Hampshire, you have to show up,” said Atinuke Cahill, 69, adding that the California Democrat needs to “prove that she wants New Hampshire voters.”
Lindy Hamilton, 21, said that while New Hampshire is “overwhelmingly white,” she thinks Harris “still has a fighting chance.”
“As a woman of color I definitely think that there are stops against us, and she definitely is at a disadvantage because of that,” said Hamilton, who is co-president of the University of New Hampshire College Democrats. “But I think she could definitely still rise above it. I think it’s definitely possible for her to win.”
The debate over Harris’ commitment to New Hampshire hasn’t dampened curiosity about her among voters.
Every election cycle, 68-year-old Gayle Esterly said, there seems to be a discussion of “why New Hampshire? Why Iowa? Because they’re very white and not representative of the whole country.”
“Maybe some people would have preconceived notions of who the people in New Hampshire are. We’re just people,” she said. “We want to know what she has to say. She has as good a shot as anybody else.”