O'Malley prepares for 2016 in Clinton shadow

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) told a group of reporters early this month he’s laying “the framework” for a presidential run in 2016. 

But he, like other second-tier Democratic presidential hopefuls, faces a near-impossible task in doing so, as all the typical steps a candidate would take to prepare for a run are precluded by the expected, but still uncertain, entry of Hillary Clinton into the race.

ADVERTISEMENT
Last month, O’Malley sat down for a meal with supporters at the governor's mansion to tell them he’s in for 2016. One supporter in attendance said the governor “made it clear” he’s moving toward a bid.

“He's made it clear to me he’s running. We did not discuss what he would do if Hillary Clinton runs,” the source said.

The source was supportive, believing O’Malley’s position — he’s framed himself as a pragmatic, pro-business Democrat, and has enough progressive policy wins under his belt to appeal to the liberal wing of the party — would make him a competitive contender in the race.

But there’s just one catch: “I’m happy to support him right now,” the source told The Hill, “but I won’t be able to raise money for him if Hillary runs because I’ll want to raise for her.”

It’s a conundrum that every single one of the second-string Democratic contenders is facing. None want to be caught sleeping if, unexpectedly, Clinton decides against a run or her standing within the party diminishes in the coming months.

None are expected to run if she enters the race, and O’Malley is no different; current and former aides say an O’Malley-Clinton primary fight is unlikely.

But few can lock down commitments from Democratic donors while they wait for the elephant in the room to make it clear whether she’s in or out.

One longtime O’Malley adviser who has attended fundraisers with the governor said the potential candidate makes his pitch to donors in vague terms, asking them to contribute to support his future plans, whatever they might be.

“It's just: ‘We've got some things we're looking at. Thank you for supporting our efforts as we help other candidates and consider what our political future's gonna be,’” the adviser said.

While O'Malley is working around the current constraints, Clinton’s presumed run means building the typical network of committed big-money donors is difficult. Staffing up in early states would be difficult, too, as any steps in that direction would immediately be read as an early entry into a race, and an lunge at usurping the Clinton coronation before it even happens.

Instead, potential candidates can do what O’Malley’s done, and will continue to do: campaign for gubernatorial and Senate candidates in various states, reach out to local activists and donors and continue to give speeches and make public appearances that keep them in the public spotlight.

O’Malley, an adviser said, will focus particularly on gubernatorial races and has plans to campaign for Democratic gubernatorial nominees in the all-important swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.

He’s already contributed through his O’Say Can You See PAC to Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley (D), who’s running for Senate, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), up for reelection next year — initial, albeit peripheral, engagement in early primary states that set tongues wagging about his potential 2016 aspirations.

But O’Malley’s advisers are quick to push back against the suggestion his campaigning plans or recent statements indicate he’s in.

“His only priority right now is electing more Democrats, with a primary focus on governors. He’s a team player,” one adviser told The Hill.

Ultimately, however, O’Malley has little to lose in moving forward with laying the framework for a run.

The governor is term-limited, and won’t have an opportunity to ascend to the Senate in the foreseeable future. He’s served in multiple executive positions and helped build the party as head of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), fostering the pedigree of a national Democratic leader.

But if the presidency in 2016 isn’t in the cards, it might be in years beyond that. Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic consultant who worked on both former Vice President Al Gore (D) and Secretary of State John Kerry’s (D) presidential campaigns, said O’Malley’s endgame may be as far as four or eight years ahead.

“I don’t think he has anything to lose by getting out there,” Shrum told The Hill. “Everybody forgets that it’s at least plausible to think that Bill Clinton was running in ‘92 to get ready for ‘96.”

Even if he is looking toward 2016, it might not be for a presidential run.

“Preparing for a run, keeping his profile up is something that can put him on the shortlist for VP, or director of the EPA or secretary of Education,” said Todd Eberly, coordinator of public policy studies at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

In the meantime, O’Malley will continue to “lay the framework for a candidacy in 2016,” as he told reporters at the DGA conference, but aides say it’s more philosophical, rather than organizational.

“What he referenced [when talking about the framework] were some of the ideas and parts of his record that he’s highlighted in recent months,” an aide said.

One particular set of ideas likely central to that framework?

The set espoused in The Gardens of Democracy, a nonfiction work penned by former Bill Clinton speechwriter Eric Liu and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer. The supporter that met with O’Malley at the governor’s mansion to talk 2016 said it had become O’Malley’s “political philosophy book” and he’s been sending copies of it to “close supporters.”

“It offers that kind of moderate view, that we’re living in a political environment where the parties don’t have to contradict each other. You can balance the budget and increase spending to help people; you don’t have to live under tyranny or in constant war,” the supporter said of the book.

“It’s essentially about political pragmatism,” the supporter added.