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Harris and Booker jostle for backing of black lawmakers

Both Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) attended the Congressional Black Caucus’ weekly meeting Wednesday. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

A behind-the-scenes scramble has broken out among Democratic White House hopefuls for support from members of the influential Congressional Black Caucus — a sign of the brewing battle for African-American voters.

Two African-American senators, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, are aggressively courting black lawmakers as they look to build networks in key presidential voting states like South Carolina, Ohio and Michigan. Both showed up at the CBC’s weekly meeting on Wednesday. As Harris worked the room, Booker told at least two members that he would call them afterward, according to sources at the meeting.

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But Joe Biden could complicate their plans: The former vice president is a longtime ally of the CBC and has been reaching out to veteran black lawmakers to talk about the race, according to multiple members.

POLITICO interviewed 15 members of the 55-member caucus over the past week about the 2020 race. Each said they have been contacted by at least one announced or likely Democratic candidate; some had heard from multiple potential contenders.

African-American and minority voters are poised to play an outsize role in determining the Democratic nominee to take on President Donald Trump next year. In addition to their clout on Capitol Hill, CBC members can be powerful surrogates in their home states — able to deliver financial and organizational support from union heads, state party chairs and other elected officials.

That means CBC member endorsements could be especially valuable in what already is shaping up to be a crowded primary.

“Issues that are important to African-Americans are going to be at the forefront” of the Democratic primary, said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), a CBC member who received a call from Harris before she declared her candidacy. “Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, as a result, are going to be instrumental for all the candidates in talking about issues of concern.”

Some CBC members are excited about Harris’ candidacy, though her background as a prosecutor has prompted doubts among certain African-American voters.

Before she formally announced her bid last week, Harris sought endorsements from CBC lawmakers in Georgia, Ohio and Michigan.

And she appeared last weekend in South Carolina with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, possibly the biggest prize among CBC members. Before announcing her candidacy, Harris sat down with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon, for an hour in his Capitol Hill office. Harris did not ask for his endorsement during the meeting, according to the veteran lawmaker.

For his part, Booker has had a long and close relationship with CBC members — and he’s reached out to a number of them ahead of his expected announcement.

Yet questions over Booker’s White House ambitions don’t present the only challenge for CBC members. Some are waiting for home-state pols to make their intentions known about whether they’ll run for president. And Biden is viewed as a candidate who can win the Midwestern states that Hillary Clinton lost, a big concern for Democrats.

Kamala Harris

An aide to Harris declined to comment for this story; Booker’s team did not respond.

In some ways Harris, who was first elected to the Senate in 2016, is playing catch-up with Booker and Biden, who have deeper ties to black lawmakers in Congress. Booker and Harris are both members of the group: He joined after he was elected in 2013, she became a member two years ago.

Harris asked Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) for his endorsement earlier this month, but he’s holding off for now. She dove into her criminal justice background during their conversation and discussed the need “to cultivate Georgia as an electoral college state,” Johnson said.

“[Harris] regards the South and Georgia in particular as a battleground state, and I appreciate the fact that she looks at Georgia in that way,” he said.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) is another CBC member who spoke with Harris before her rollout. Lawrence wants to help Harris organize a trip to Detroit and talked up the California Democrat’s potential.

“I’m very excited about her running and told her however I can be supportive I would be,” said Lawrence, whose state went to Trump in 2016.

“Sen. Harris and I talked about the possibility of an endorsement,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio). “Obviously, Cory hasn’t said he’s running yet.”

Fudge said she’s “thinking very, very strongly” about backing Harris but notes — like other Democrats — that she may have a home-state candidate in the race as well, which complicates the issue for her. In Fudge’s case, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is considering a run.

Likewise, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) has spoken with Harris but is holding off on an endorsement to see what former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe does.

“I talked to Kamala,” Scott said, “but I’m in an awkward situation because we might have a candidate running from Virginia. So I’m kind of keeping my powder dry until that’s settled.”

Tulsi Gabbard

Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, is a power player in all-important South Carolina. He said support from CBC members will be important in his state “because our primary will be the first chance to see how you do among African-American voters.”

“I’ve talked to Booker and I’ve talked to Kamala,” Clyburn said.

Though neither Harris nor Booker has formally sought his endorsement, Clyburn admitted the presidential race is going full tilt inside the CBC.

“I know who’s for Biden, who’s for Booker, who’s for [Harris],” said Clyburn, though he declined to offer details. Clyburn confirmed Biden is courting CBC members as well.

Former CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) spoke with Harris over the holiday break and is in constant talks with Booker about the 2020 race. Butterfield said Booker didn’t talk in depth about his own possible candidacy but stressed “the importance of getting the right nominee.”

Butterfield added that he’s “in a wait-and-see mode to see if [Booker’s] going to announce.”

After the gut punch 2016 delivered to Democrats, some CBC members are concerned only about beating Trump, not the race or ethnicity of a candidate.

“I don’t care if it’s a black person, brown person, short person, tall person,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “I want to win.”

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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