Eyebrows were raised among Democratic officials and activists on Jan. 21 when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) announced her 2020 presidential nomination bid and listed Marc Elias as her campaign’s general counsel.
Elias, head of the Perkins Coie LLP law firm’s political law practice, is among the Democratic Party’s top campaign finance experts and a recognized power-player at the highest levels.
Described by a veteran Democratic national campaign consultant as “the best in the business,” Elias could prove to be both an immensely valuable asset to Harris—and also a huge problem.
On the plus side, Elias gives Harris’s presidential campaign one of the most well-connected operatives in American politics and a significant boost early in what promises to be a heavily populated, intensely competitive primary field.
Elias and his firm currently represent every major Democratic Party committee, including the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Democratic Governors Association, as well as numerous individual senators and representatives.
He also was the chief attorney for former Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign against President George W. Bush and for the White House bid of another former chief U.S. diplomat, Hillary Clinton, in 2016.
Elias represented former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in the sharply contested 2008 recount battle, and he has extensive litigation experience in voting rights and redistricting cases across the country. He also represented former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) in his losing 2018 recount battle.
As a result, Elias knows everybody who is anybody in Democratic campaigns, including donors, consultants, good guys to know, and opportunists to avoid at all cost.
Given the California junior senator’s lack of experience in national politics—barely two years, as she was first elected to the Senate in 2016—having Elias at hand will help her avoid costly rookie mistakes in fundraising and opening influential doors ahead of rivals such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
That Harris nabbed Elias so early in the 2020 campaign may also send an important signal to former Vice President Joe Biden, that his path back to the White House may not be as clear as conventional wisdom suggests.
But there is a potentially devastating downside that comes with Elias for Harris, especially in the event she wins her party’s nomination. He’s at the center of the biggest political scandal in decades, and not in a good way.
It was Elias who, as the Clinton campaign’s attorney of record, used campaign funds to retain the infamous opposition research firm Fusion GPS to compile what became known as the Steele dossier on President Donald Trump, according to the Washington Post.
The dossier was compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, based in part on information he gleaned from individuals close to Russian intelligence agencies.
Despite being, according to then-FBI Director James Comey, a “salacious and unverified” document, the Steele dossier was used by the Department of Justice and the bureau to obtain approval for surveillance of Trump’s campaign.
Thus, Elias has the distinction of being both a major player in the Trump/Russia scandal and an attorney representing another key figure, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, during his interview with Senate Intelligence Committee staff.
Elias also brings baggage that could hurt Harris as a result of his firm’s role in the DNC’s response to being hacked, allegedly by Russian interests. Instead of asking the FBI to investigate the hack, DNC officials reportedly relied upon a private cyber-security company recommended by the Elias firm.
Finally, Elias represented Google and Facebook in their 2011 requests to the Federal Election Commission for an exemption from a requirement that digital political ads purchased via the two tech giants include disclaimers revealing who paid for them.
Google got the exemption, but Facebook’s request was never decided and the social media site didn’t include the disclaimers. The case could be significant since Russian interests bought $100,000 in ads on Facebook during the 2016 campaign.
Elias told The New York Times the disclaimers wouldn’t have stopped the Russians, who bought the Facebook ads because “they were willing to break the law to help Donald Trump.”
Harris, who is known, as the L.A. Times says, for her “mix of cold calculation, relentless fundraising and force of personality” and willingness to do whatever it takes to win, surely knows all of the upsides and downsides of having Elias on her team.
And the upsides are what count now in her quest to secure her party’s nomination for the Oval Office.