From the moment that former Vice President Joe Biden announced that Sen. Kamala Harris was joining him on the Democratic ticket, his campaign has made the California senator’s longtime friendship with his late son Beau a centerpiece of their new relationship.
That friendship, stretching back to when both were state attorneys general and rising stars in the Democratic firmament, may also have helped smooth Harris’ path to joining Biden on the ticket, as longtime Biden advisers and even some family members remained skeptical in the wake of her criticism during the primary campaign of his record on school busing and work with segregationist senators.
As the veepstakes were still ongoing, the influence of Dr. Jill Biden, the former vice president’s spouse of more than four decades, and Valerie Biden Owens, his sister and longtime campaign manager and confidante, was considered by those close to the family as a potential hindrance for Harris’ path to joining Biden on the ticket.
“While the [Miami] debate was well over a year ago… Dr. Biden and Val certainly carried more hurt from that incident than anyone,” one source close to the Bidens told The Daily Beast. “The polling and focus groups must have provided them the necessary and decisive clarity to support the decision to add Kamala to the ticket.”
For both women, as well as for some donors and longtime advisers in Biden’s orbit, the “that little girl was me” moment made the prospect of Harris being rewarded with a spot on the ticket a tough pill to swallow.
“She didn’t even endorse until after Super Tuesday,” one campaign bundler grumbled, musing that “the [electoral] math must’ve been undeniable” to sway the skeptics in Bidenworld, where staff and advisers often become decades-old friends and where loyalty and trust are the coins of the realm.
Even amongst the “Council of Elders,” as some younger campaign staffers refer to members of the Biden old guard, Dr. Biden and Biden Owens are considered particularly influential in regards to campaign policy, with the latter having effectively helmed Biden’s two previous presidential campaigns and Senate campaigns. Biden Owens also moved in with her brother after the death of his first wife and his infant daughter in 1972 to help care for his two sons, which further strengthened their relationship.
“They’re very close,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist who was a senior campaign staffer during Biden’s 1988 run for the White House. “Joe Biden relies heavily on Valerie for advice and counsel… the vice president, I think, trusts her implicitly on a whole range of things.”
That was cause for some concern as Harris’ name came up in early speculation as a potential running mate. Shortly after Biden’s ten-state sweep on Super Tuesday but before she had endorsed his candidacy, Dr. Biden remarked during a fundraiser in Chicago that she admired the senator, but raised eyebrows when she described the debate moment as “just like a punch to the gut.”
“Our son, Beau, spoke so highly of her and how great she was,” she said at the time. “And not that she isn’t, I’m not saying that. But it was just like a punch to the gut. It was a little unexpected.”
The Biden campaign has downplayed the importance of the first Democratic debate, which occurred more than a year ago, and stressed to The Daily Beast that Dr. Biden’s remarks referred to how she had felt at the time of the debate itself, rather than how she felt eight months later.
Rather than feeling a “gut punch,” one spokesman contended, Dr. Biden actually came away from the debate exchange with more respect for Harris.
“Dr. B likes strong women of conviction who can hold their own. She watched Senator Harris challenge her husband on the debate stage and hold her own,” said Michael LaRosa, Dr. Biden’s press secretary. “She considers Senator Harris a role model for girls and women, including her granddaughters, and the perfect governing partner for her husband.”
LaRosa also dismissed assertions from two sources close to the former second lady that she was privately flippant following Harris’ endorsement in March, calling them “laughable and 100 percent untrue.”
Others in Biden’s orbit, including former Sen. Chris Dodd, a member of Joe Biden’s vice presidential search committee, were reportedly resistant to Harris even in the final days of the hunt for a running mate. One donor told Politico that Dodd felt Harris had “no remorse” for the broadside on busing, and that he was pushing for a running mate whose loyalty—and, critics surmised, submission—wouldn’t be in question.
Dodd later distanced himself from the alleged remarks in a written statement saying the remarks as reported did not “represent my view on Sen. Harris,” after a social media firestorm stoked by the #KHive accused him of misogyny and racism. Biden himself offered some accidental insight into his views on Harris days afterwards, when an Associated Press photographer snapped a shot of his speaking notes. The first note under Harris’ name: “Do not hold grudges.”
Biden, speaking during their first joint appearance as running mates on Wednesday, highlighted Harris’ integrity as an opponent, as well as perhaps her most unimpeachable credential in his eyes: her friendship with his late son.
“I first came to know who Kamala was through my son Beau,” Biden said, noting the “big fights” that the pair mounted as state attorneys general during the financial crisis. “I know how much Beau respected Kamala and her work, and that mattered a lot to me as I made this decision.”
Harris, too, emphasized her friendship with Beau, who served as Delaware’s attorney general before his death from brain cancer in 2015, calling him “the kind of guy who inspired people to be a better version of themselves.”
“He was the best of us,” Harris said as Biden looked on, growing visibly emotional. “And when I would ask him where he got that from, he always talked about his dad. The love they shared was incredible to watch.”
The formation of a Biden-Harris ticket, multiple sources close to the family told The Daily Beast, speaks to a pragmatic understanding of how Harris—young, a formidable speaker and debater, and a simultaneously history-making and relatively safe choice of running mate—will help the ticket in the final months of the campaign, as well as to Biden’s own understanding that sometimes things shake out differently after a campaign.
“Joe literally called Barack Obama ‘clean and articulate,’ and they went on to have an incredibly deep personal and professional relationship,” one longtime friend of the family said.
Dr. Biden, a veteran political spouse, also sees in Doug Emhoff, Harris’ husband of nearly six years and a popular figure on the campaign trail—he once gave leftover cupcakes from his wife’s birthday celebration to Biden’s campaign team when the candidates ran into each other in an Iowa airplane hangar—as a promising future partner in a Biden administration.
Dr. Biden first met Emhoff during the primary debates and developed a friendship after a joint October appearance at a Pride event in Las Vegas. In an all-staff call on Thursday evening, a campaign official told The Daily Beast, Emhoff delivered “emotional closing remarks” about this experience being welcomed into the “Biden family,” noting how warm the first few days of the joint ticket have been.
“Dr. Biden enjoys her time and conversations with Doug whom I envision she sees as a great partner in the White House, similar to her experience with Michelle Obama,” a source close to the Bidens said.
“In the end politicians are much more practical than us mere mortals,” said John Morgan, a major bundler for the campaign who told The Daily Beast last month that Harris’ debate performance had been “treacherous” and who had been hoping that Biden would select fellow Floridian Rep. Val Demings as his running mate. “It was his grudge to hold and he chose not to.”