2020 Dems boost down-ballot contenders in key states

2020 Dems boost down-ballot contenders in key states
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When Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller (D) needed a special guest at a campaign fundraiser, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) was only too willing to help. New Hampshire state Sen. Dan Feltes (D) wanted to raise cash, so he turned to former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D).

And Iowa Democrats fighting for a House district in a special election last year turned to Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneySupreme Court sidesteps partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin, Maryland cases Supreme Court faces major decision on partisan gerrymandering Ready for somebody? Dems lack heir apparent this time MORE (D-Md.) and Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleySenate Dems call for Judiciary hearing on Trump's 'zero tolerance' GOP lawmaker compares cages for migrant children to chain-link fences on playgrounds Democrats protest Trump's immigration policy from Senate floor MORE (D-Ore.) for help rallying volunteers.

From the farmland around Fairfield, Iowa, to the snowy streets of Concord, N.H., the invisible primary for the Democratic presidential nomination is well underway. More than a dozen potential candidates have made initial forays into states that will hold the first nominating contests of the cycle, honing a campaign message and meeting the activists who could make or break their Oval Office dreams.

“We’re in ‘grab an oar’ territory. People want to pitch in any way they can in the progressive movement,” Kander said in an interview. “For me, that may mean headlining fundraisers, or helping recruit volunteers.”

The activists and party leaders who benefit from a visit by a candidate like Kander take note of the national names — some big, some little-known — who show up.

“We are watching and paying attention to who is thinking about it,” said Mark Smith, the Democratic minority leader of the Iowa state House. “It’s a wide-open field, and there are a good number of people from lots of different backgrounds that are interested in running.”

After suffering bruising losses during the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, Democrats at the state legislative level can use all the help they can get to rebuild the bench. In those Republican waves, Democrats lost just shy of 1,000 state legislative seats across the country.

In states like New Hampshire and Iowa, where Republicans control both the governor’s office and the legislature, Democratic leaders are happy to be used as the first steps in undeclared presidential campaigns.

“My ambition is to win the Senate. Whoever helps me to get to a Democratic majority, I’m going to be grateful to,” said Jeff Woodburn, the Democratic minority leader of the New Hampshire state Senate. “If you’re a little-known candidate or potential candidate, I think it’s important to get out there and build relationships.”


Some candidates have made frequent trips to key early states, in hopes of building lasting bonds.

Kander’s visit to New Hampshire late last month was his ninth trip to the state since President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN analyst Kirsten Powers: Melania's jacket should read 'Let them eat cake' CNN's Cuomo confronts Lewandowski over 'womp womp' remark Sessions says FBI agent Peter Strzok no longer has his security clearance MORE was inaugurated. He called The Hill from Georgia, where he will host an event, after waking up Monday morning in Mississippi, where he raised money for a Democratic candidate for Congress. Kander has visited 38 states since Trump was inaugurated.

Does that mean he’s running for president?

“It’s something that people are asking me about, which has me thinking about it,” Kander, 36, said. “After 2018, I’m going to consider my options.”

Delaney, 54, the only candidate who has officially announced his bid, has already spent money on television advertisements. The 54-year-old Merkley — a leader of the progressive wing of the Senate Democratic Conference whose profile is not as large as Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenFederal court rules consumer bureau structure unconstitutional Election Countdown: Family separation policy may haunt GOP in November | Why Republican candidates are bracing for surprises | House Dems rake in record May haul | 'Dumpster fire' ad goes viral The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — GOP lawmakers race to find an immigration fix MORE (D-Mass.), 68, or Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersBernie Sanders: Trump thinks like an authoritarian Democrats protest Trump's immigration policy from Senate floor Trump's America fights back MORE (I-Vt.), 76 — has traveled to both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Bullock, 51, spent three days in Iowa this week, fundraising for Miller and the Polk County Democrats. He met with state legislative leaders, then traveled to Marshalltown — Smith’s backyard — for another meet and greet. The Montana governor has also traveled to states like Arizona and Wisconsin, states Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSessions says FBI agent Peter Strzok no longer has his security clearance Melania Trump puzzles with 'I really don't care' jacket Grassley wants to subpoena Comey, Lynch after critical IG report MORE’s campaign was criticized for avoiding in 2016.

More prominent possible contenders are staying home for the moment, though they are helping out with money or other support.

Warren has signed fundraising emails for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), tasked with electing Democrats to state House and Senate seats across the country. Former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderThe American experience is incomplete without its neighbor – The argument for Americanism Eric Holder: Trump administration has 'brought shame to the nation’ with family separations US law is not on the side of Mueller's appointment as special counsel MORE, 67, will headline the DLCC’s annual meeting in Miami in July. Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDem presidential hopefuls seize on Trump border policy To strengthen our democracy, we need to remove obstacles that keep students from voting Members of Congress demand new federal gender pay audit MORE (D-N.J.), 48, headlined a DLCC meeting in Washington in December.

“The big names, for their political purposes, don’t want to show up and light everybody’s curiosity on fire,” Woodburn said. “Their route is a different route from a lesser-known candidate. You play the hand you’re dealt, and I’m not sure being a front-runner is a good hand to be dealt right now.”

Two billionaires said to be considering runs — former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 76, and California hedge fund investor Tom Steyer, 60 — are funding candidates and get-out-the-vote efforts through groups they finance. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), 55; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), 67; former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), 61; and former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenBiden: Trump family separation policy could make the US a pariah Elizabeth Warren can unify Democrats and take back the White House Giuliani doubles down on Biden comments: 'I meant that he’s dumb' MORE (D), 75, have all stumped with legislative candidates across the country.

“There’s so many ways they can get engaged and help, raise the visibility of these races with the help of their national profile,” said Jessica Post, who runs the DLCC. “With the huge number of candidates that are popping up to run for the presidency, hopefully we’ll see even more support.”

Strategists watching the Democratic field say the early efforts at outreach are a symbiotic relationship. The potential presidential candidates get exposure to activists in early states, demonstrating their commitment to the party, while legislative candidates get the benefit of a high-wattage political celebrity who helps raise money and fire up the troops.


“It is a way to structure your engagement,” said Colm O’Comartun, a former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association and a longtime adviser to O’Malley.

Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire say the potential presidential candidates usually make the first outreach, to let party leaders know they will be in the area and to offer help. State leaders and representatives for the potential candidate then hold a conference call to decide how best to use time.

“It’s a way that both can get further name recognition,” Iowa’s Smith said. “The candidates themselves are looking at timing, when it’s best to start speculation that they’re running.”