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2020 visions: Will one of these Democrats win the White House?

Author: W. James Antle III, Washington Examiner - June 27, 2018 - Updated: July 6, 2018


Democrats groan when you ask them about it. The party is still sifting through the wreckage of the last presidential campaign while trying to win the midterm elections in November.

Nearly every competitive primary this year — including the battle between Jason Crow and Levi Tillemann in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District — was cast as a replay of the factional battles of 2016: the establishment Hillary Clinton wing versus the progressives galvanized by Bernie Sanders.

But the 2020 presidential race is fast approaching, and what happens this year will reverberate into a likely challenge against President Donald Trump. And unless something major happens in the Russia investigation or the incumbent has second thoughts about another term, Republican insiders expect their nominee to be Trump.

Republican presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at The Franklin Park Conservatory & Botanical Gardens, Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Columbus. Ohio. Kasich announced the end of his White House bid. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at The Franklin Park Conservatory & Botanical Gardens on May 4, 2016, in Columbus. Ohio. Kasich announced the end of his White House bid. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The only hypothetical primary challengers to Trump on the horizon are Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has alienated conservatives, and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who fell out of favor with GOP primary voters in his own state. Both will be out of office next year, as Kasich is term-limited and Flake is retiring.

Speculation about a nominee other than Trump is “idle chatter” at this point, a Republican strategist told the Washington Examiner. And while Trump remains poison for Democrats, his approval rating among Republicans hit 90 percent in a Gallup poll conducted June 11-17.

Democrats, on the other hand, may have a presidential field large enough to rival the Republicans’ 17-candidate scrum in 2016. Clinton seems unlikely to run after her second straight loss and the diminishment of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in the #MeToo era. A new generation of party leaders is emerging. And a plethora of senators and governors are expected to at least consider a bid, perhaps including some who aren’t even in office yet.

Many Democratic operatives spoke to the Washington Examiner about the 2020 field on condition on anonymity in order to avoid alienating potential future clients. Nevertheless, their overall mood was optimistic about the talent level of their probable candidates and prospects for unseating the Republicans.

In a January Harvard/Harris poll, no Democratic presidential contender tested received more than 27 percent support. A subsequent SurveyMonkey poll found no one above 22 percent. At this very early stage, the race looks wide-open.

Joe Biden

With primaries still two years off, the candidate at the top of the national surveys at the moment is former Vice President Joe Biden. The two-term Barack Obama sidekick is the closest thing to a frontrunner, although it is far from certain that he will actually run.

Democratic insiders believe that the fire in the belly — the presidential ambitions that led to Biden candidacies in 1988 and again 20 years later in 2008 — still burns. Biden considered a third campaign in 2016, but two factors weighed against it.

The first was personal tragedy. Biden was still mourning his son Beau when much of the early planning for a campaign needed to be done and he publicly questioned whether he or his family was ready to go through the rigors of what figured to be a competitive primary.

Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the third day session of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the third day session of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“Nobody has a right, in my view, to seek that office unless they are willing to give it 110 percent of who they are,” Biden told late-night television host Stephen Colbert in 2015, admitting that he was not yet ready to commit to that kind of effort after losing his son. Yet also around this time, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described Beau as exhorting his father to run because the “White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values” — a plea it was later reported the elder Biden leaked himself.

The second major obstacle was the fact that the sitting vice president wasn’t the front-runner to succeed Obama as titular head of the Democratic Party. Clinton, the former secretary of state and runner-up in the 2008 primaries, was in the lead, and Biden was off to a late start competing with her for donors and staff. Rather than have what would have surely been his last campaign end in defeat, he deferred to Clinton.

Since Clinton lost to Trump, Biden has been in demand on the campaign trail. The heir to the establishment mantle, Biden has already notched a win against the Sanders wing of the party with his support of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, over progressive state Sen. Kevin de Leon. Feinstein finished more than 30 points ahead while de Leon barely advanced from California’s nonpartisan “jungle primary” to the general election.

“The Bernie people were pushing Kevin de Leon and he got 11 percent of the vote and barely got into the thing,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “Feinstein had the establishment support, especially Joe Biden. I’ve got to say that turned out pretty well for Biden.”

“I think he’ll run,” said a second strategist working on 2018 campaigns. “I’ll be pretty surprised, and a little disappointed, if he doesn’t.”

The case for Biden is that he can compete with Trump for working-class whites, bringing states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan back to the Democratic fold, without alienating younger and nonwhite voters. Biden has only become a more engaging and sympathetic figure since passing on 2016.

The main arguments against are age — he would be 78 when sworn into office — and a reputation for being “handsy” with women. He has never been accused of anything untoward, but he acquired this image in part based on effusive glad-handling captured on camera. Would a woman complain about his behavior now? Maybe neither matters in a race against Trump, a septuagenarian who has already been accused of sexual harassment, but Biden would have to make it out of the Democratic primary first.

Bernie Sanders

The junior senator from Vermont had never actually run as a Democrat for anything until the 2016 presidential primaries against Clinton, despite being a member of their Senate caucus. He had previously been the nominee of small third parties and was elected to both houses of Congress as an independent.

Sanders has nevertheless left his mark on the party. Liberal primary candidates seek his endorsement and rely on organizations that grew out of his campaign. Even establishment Democrats now tout “Medicare for All” — the socialist lawmaker’s preferred nomenclature for government-run, single-payer healthcare — and a $15 minimum wage, fearing his followers and impressed by his strong showing with independents and millennials.

The perception that Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz favored Clinton over Sanders in the primary process, bolstered by leaked emails, has done lasting damage to the DNC’s fundraising and hurt other party organs’ efforts to shape primary fields this year.

two deadline extensions on filing a candidate disclosure with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), and then was excused from doing so after he dropped out of the race. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
In this July 25, 2016, file photo, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

What doomed Sanders’ campaign against Clinton was that he was never able to compete with her among minority voters, who are not numerous in Vermont. Overwhelming black support is one factor that separated Obama from failed progressives such as Sanders and fellow Vermonter Howard Dean.

Appearing in California days before the state’s June 5 primary, Sanders tried to rectify that. He appeared at a rally with Black Lives Matter, as activist Shaun King extolled his involvement in the 1960s civil-rights movement. “Don’t tell me it is irrelevant; it is an origin story,” King said.

Sanders spoke out against the “dysfunctional, destructive” criminal justice system that leads to the mass incarceration of African Americans and other people of color. He said he hadn’t always been familiar with the extent of the problem, but vowed he was “learning fast.” On the same trip, he protested for a $15-an-hour wage for Disney workers in Anaheim.

Yet 2018 has so far been a mixed bag for the Bernie Democrats. Progressive congressional candidate Lara Moser forced a runoff in her Texas district after a clumsy attempt by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to undermine her, but then lost in the second round of voting. Sanders’ former Iowa campaign chair Pete D’Alessandro finished third in a congressional primary of his own.

If Sanders isn’t a perfect kingmaker, there are also questions about whether he can become king without a binary choice between himself and Clinton. His support is slipping in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, where he won 60 percent of the vote against Clinton but is now running third in some polls. Despite his youthful support base, Sanders will turn 79 before the 2020 general election.

Elizabeth Warren

One candidate who could threaten Sanders’ status as a progressive hero is Warren, D-Massachusetts, who ran on many of the same themes without embracing the socialist label and was a crusader for financial regulations in the dark days of the Great Recession. She has suggested she won’t run, but is up for re-election this year, six years removed from unseating Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., an early Tea Party hero.

In a fundraising appeal to MoveOn.org supporters this month, Warren told progressives that her example was one they could emulate.

“I was 62 years old when I decided to run for the U.S. Senate for the first time. I was a professor and policy wonk, who made fighting for middle-class families my life’s work,” she wrote. “My Republican opponent had a 65 percent approval rating, $10 million in the bank, and Wall Street on speed dial ready to help him win. The only way we had a shot at winning was to build the biggest grassroots campaign in Senate history.” (She also benefited from Obama being at the top of the ticket.)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks with reporters as Democrats criticized the Republican health care plan, at the Capitol in Washington in March. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Warren hasn’t hesitated to pick fights with Trump, even on his home turf of Twitter. The president is “playing a political game” by saying he can pardon himself, she tweeted this month. Trump is practicing “right-wing ideology disguised as health policy” she wrote about new abortion funding restrictions announced by the administration. Trump in turn calls her “Pocahontas,” a less subtle version of the nickname she acquired for claiming Native American heritage while teaching at Harvard: “Fauxcahontas.”

During the heated debate over Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ confirmation, Warren turned a rebuke from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, into a battle cry. “She was warned,” McConnell said after invoking a Senate rule against Warren. “She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Now the catchphrase “She persisted” appears on T-shirts.

Warren has been active on the campaign trail this year. She helped her protege Katie Porter, a University of California, Irvine professor, advance to the general election for California’s 45th Congressional District, a Democratic pickup opportunity. “Elizabeth Warren really went to bat for her,” said Bannon, the Democratic strategist.

When Warren opened the year sitting on $12.8 million in cash, which was more than all of her would-be Republican challengers had combined, it naturally raised questions about whether all of the money was for her reelection in Massachusetts. She insists that she is not looking past her Senate seat. Nevertheless, she could persist.

Kamala Harris

Harris is a freshman senator, having just been been elected by California voters in 2016. The former California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney has already attracted a national following by grilling Trump nominees and executive branch officials at Senate hearings. She is a 53-year-old African-American woman with a knack for digital fundraising who is already being talked about as a presidential possibility, and is already being compared to Obama.

When Mike Pompeo, currently the secretary of state but then a Republican congressman nominated to become CIA director, appeared before her in committee, she questioned him on climate change and gay marriage. “He probably found her a tougher customer than (North Korean dictator) Kim Jong Un,” joked a Hill Republican.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, speaks at a a town hall meeting in April 2018 in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, speaks at a a town hall meeting in April 2018 in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Harris has deployed her online army on behalf of her fellow Democrats. She has raised $3 million for Democratic senators up for re-election this year. She boosted Democrats in California’s nonpartisan primary this month, helping her party make it to the general election ballot in several contests where that outcome seemed far from certain.

There are two knocks on Harris. One is that she risks losing support at home if she too quickly shifts attention to the national scene. The second is that something from her “tough on crime” days will emerge to contradict her progressive bona fides.

Gavin Newsom

If not Harris, another Californian might make a run for the White House: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor who is now heavily favored to beat Trump-endorsed Republican John Cox for governor in November. Too soon? Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown both ran for president halfway through their first terms as governor (although both lost).

“He is in a unique position to be, like Jerry Brown, to be a kind of ‘George Wallace’ of the liberal/blue state cause,” said James Taylor, professor of political science at the University of San Francisco, in reference to California’s resistance to Trump-era federal edicts on immigration and other issues. “California is well-positioned to provide national leadership to a fractured Democratic Party after Bernie and Hillary.”

Gavin Newsom speaks during a visit with veterans and their families at the 2-1-1 Connections Center Friday, May 25, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Taylor pointed to former California Gov. Gray Davis, who was recalled and then replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a cautionary tale. “He dreamed of being POTUS more than California governor and took his eye off the state’s major concerns and it rendered his ambitions ‘stillborn,’ to use an ancient term,” he said.

Newsom has denied any interest in the presidency.

Eric Holder

If there is anyone who can rival Biden’s connection to Obama, it is the 44th president’s attorney general.

Holder and Obama are partnered on an initiative to win back state legislative seats that are crucial to the congressional redistricting process. This project would accomplish two important Democratic goals: it would try to reverse the Obama-era hemorrhaging of Democrats in down-ballot races as well as what supporters view as Republican gerrymandering, improving the Democrats’ chances of holding the House.

Holder, the first African-American attorney general, was a frequent target of Republicans and was once held in contempt of Congress. He has already visited New Hampshire and has made no secret that he is “thinking” about running for president, once telling NBC News that Biden told him not to wait for his decision.

“The president and other members of his administration have tried to use race as a wedge issue to divide the American people, and it is something that I think is reprehensible,” Holder, 67, said in Manchester. He would need a major assist from Obama in raising money and putting together an organization that would rival what some of the other candidates could assemble.

Howard Schultz

If you are going to have a massive presidential field, then you need a billionaire to disrupt it. Republicans had Trump in 2016. Maybe the Democrats will have former Starbucks CEO and Executive Chairman Howard Schultz.

Schultz was noncommittal about running after stepping down from the coffee giant this month, saying there were other things he could do as a private citizen. But he has been outspoken about political issues and often had to deal with contentious subjects at the helm of Starbucks.

Unfortunately, little of what Schultz has had to say recently sounds like it would fit in with a Democratic Party that is increasingly invested in Medicare for All and universal employment.

“Both parties, President Obama, President Bush and now President Trump, both members of Congress, are complicit in their reckless approach to the amount of debt,” he said, warning that a company with such loose spending practices would be approaching “insolvency.”

“I don’t drink coffee,” quipped a Democratic consultant when asked about Schultz.

Cory Booker

The Washington Post describes Booker, a senator from New Jersey, as having the “highest upside” of any 2020 Democrat. A solid orator with a reputation for working across party lines, the African American former mayor of Newark has been considered a rising star for years.

“We in this nation have work to do,” Booker said in a recent well-received speech. “Let us march. Let us march to organize. If we go together, we will bring this country forward.” He was dispatched to Alabama to campaign in a special Senate election that resulted in newly minted Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, showing the breadth of his appeal.

“America, marching onward” is not a bad campaign slogan for Democrats in the Trump era. Booker has nevertheless lost some of his bipartisan aura as he has tried to keep up with his fellow Democrats to protect his Left flank.

At the same time, Booker has been pilloried by liberals for taking contributions from pharmaceutical companies — many of which hail from New Jersey — and being too business-friendly in general.

“Well, we put a pause on even receiving contributions from pharma companies because it arouses so much criticism and just stopped taking it,” Booker told NPR last year. He has tried to make up for it by standing up to Trump appointees at televised hearings, with one particularly contentious exchange with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about the president’s “shithole country” remarks, accusing her of “amnesia” and being “complicit.”

The question is whether Booker can rev up the base while maintaining some of his pragmatic nice-guy image.

Kirsten Gillibrand

It would be easy for Gillibrand to remain in the shadow of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York. But New York’s junior senator has been making waves.

Having been active on women’s issues through her tenure, Gillibrand has become one of the leading #MeToo voices against sexual harassment and assault on Capitol Hill. She was instrumental in getting Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, to resign amid groping allegations as part of a flood of Senate women coming out against him. And she has been part of the liberal reappraisal of Bill Clinton, having said he should have resigned during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Gillibrand has had to endure some liberal backlash on both counts, having taken on powerful Democrats. Pressed by Joy Behar from “The View” on whether Franken was entitled to a hearing on the accusations against him, Gillibrand replied, “He’s not entitled to my silence, Joy.”

The 51-year-old had been pushing legislation to combat sexual assault in the military long before the Harvey Weinstein story shined a spotlight on Hollywood and Washington, D.C. Nonetheless, even some liberals have labeled her a political opportunist and have pointed to more conservative positions she once took on guns and immigration.

As for others…

Many other Democrats are said to be pondering their 2020 chances: former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, whose winning 2006 campaign was considered a prototype for Obama’s in 2008; former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, whose 2016 bid to become a progressive favorite fizzled after Sanders surged; and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a top Clinton ally, to name a few.

“Few,” however, is not a word likely to be associated with Democratic presidential candidates in the near future.

W. James Antle III, Washington Examiner