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The Top Ten Democrats for 2020

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Disney laying off 32,000 workers as coronavirus batters theme parks Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year MORE (D-Mass.) fired the starting pistol for the 2020 presidential race on Monday when she announced she was forming an exploratory committee for a White House bid.

Warren is the first top tier candidate to take such a major step — but plenty of others are expected to follow soon.

Here, The Hill presents its initial rankings of the Democratic field.

1. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas)

The old cliche holds that Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love when it comes to selecting presidential nominees. If that’s true, it is good news for O’Rourke, who excited Democrats nationwide even while failing in his bid to unseat Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol MORE (R-Texas) in the fall. 

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O’Rourke came within 3 points of defeating Cruz in the strongly Republican state. More to the point, he proved to be a magnetic presence on the campaign trail and a fundraising juggernaut. He raised an astonishing $38 million in the third quarter of 2018 alone.

A number of aides to former President Obama have also talked up O’Rourke, drawing comparisons between his appeal and that of the former president. 

Obama himself told his former aide David Axelrod that O’Rourke exhibited a similar sense of authenticity. 

“The reason I was able to make a connection with a sizable portion of the country was because people had a sense that I said what I meant,” Obama told Axelrod, adding of O’Rourke, “it felt as if he based his statements and his positions on what he believed.”

There are still plenty of skeptics. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, himself a former Obama chief of staff, complained in a late November MSNBC interview, “He lost. You don’t usually promote a loser.” Commentators supportive of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Clyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts Prepare for buyers' remorse when Biden/Harris nationalize health care MORE (I-Vt.) have also sought to knock the gloss off O’Rourke in recent weeks, questioning the Texan’s progressive credentials.

But those attacks show just how much of a threat O’Rourke poses to the rest of the field. 

2. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Sanders is a divisive figure in the Democratic Party — not least because he is not a member of it.

But the Vermont independent has won a hugely devoted following with the democratic socialist ideas that he had been pushing for decades before they became fashionable.

He also has the organizational advantages that come from his much stronger-than-expected 2016 showing against eventual nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Federal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we're ready to get back to work Biden soars as leader of the free world MORE

Ironically, Sanders’s best chance for 2020 success could be to ape what President TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation MORE did in the 2016 GOP primaries. There were plenty of Republicans implacably opposed to Trump, but their votes were split among a large field. That allowed Trump to roll up victory after victory with a plurality of the vote.

There are dangers for Sanders: Warren’s all-but-inevitable candidacy could split the progressive vote while O’Rourke could draw the young voters who flocked to Sanders in 2016. Sanders would also be 79 by Inauguration Day 2021.

But, make no mistake, Sanders is a real contender if he runs. 

3. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation US records 2,300 COVID-19 deaths as pandemic rises with holidays MORE

Biden leads almost all opinion polls at this stage — and how you rate his chances depends largely on how much you think that matters. 

A CNN poll earlier this month showed him with 30 percent support, more than double the level of the second-place Sanders, who grabbed 14 percent. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll suggested Democrats were more excited about a run by Biden than anyone else.

The case for Biden is straightforward: He can connect with the Rust Belt voters who carried Trump to victory in 2016, he was a loyal vice president to Obama and he is generally well-liked within the party.

But the case for Biden-skepticism is just as easily made. His strong polling numbers are a consequence of name recognition more than anything else, the doubters say — and an establishment Democrat first elected to the Senate in 1972 is hardly what the party wants in the current, insurgent-friendly political moment. 

Biden first ran for president in 1988 and did so again in 2008. Could he climb the mountain in one final effort?

4. Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Biden can rebuild trust in our justice system by prioritizing prosecutorial reform Harris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence MORE (D-Calif.)

Harris, a first-term senator and former attorney general of California, is one of the most intriguing figures in the race.

She has made her national name in part through formidable, prosecutorial questioning of figures aligned with Trump, including then-Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsAlabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future Tuberville incorrectly says Gore was president-elect in 2000 Next attorney general must embrace marijuana law reforms MORE and Supreme Court nominee Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughCOVID-19: Justice Alito overstepped judicial boundaries Defusing the judicial confirmation process The magnificent moderation of Susan Collins MORE

She is charismatic, a powerful orator and the strongest non-white candidate in the field — something that could be important given not just the importance of the black vote, but a more general acceptance among liberals that Democrats need to demonstrate their diversity.

Harris could also conceivably bridge the span of the party between progressives and centrists, drawing some support from both wings in a way that Sanders from the left, or Biden, toward the center, might struggle to do.

At the same time, parts of her record, including on criminal justice, give liberals a degree of heartburn. Still, she is clearly a top-tier candidate if, as is widely expected, she runs. 

5. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

The video Warren released to mark the formation of her exploratory committee on Monday was slick and effective. It emphasized her role in pushing back against malfeasance on the part of financial institutions but also framed that as part of a bigger story, portraying her as a fighter for fairness. She also made specific reference to racial inequities.

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Warren has been a progressive hero since her days pushing for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She is a strong and fiery platform speaker. And it’s possible that she could outflank Sanders on the left.

But Democrats who are lukewarm about Warren question her political instincts, highlighting the curious recent episode where she claimed via DNA evidence that she had a Native American ancestor six to 10 generations ago. The intention was to defang Trump’s attack on her as “Pocahontas,” but the effort backfired, even drawing criticism from the Cherokee Nation.

More broadly, some Democrats worry that Trump’s visceral appeal to some white working-class voters will not be best countered by an erstwhile Harvard Law School professor from a deep-blue state.

6. Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOn The Money: Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | JPMorgan: Economy will shrink in first quarter due to COVID-19 spike Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol MORE (D-Ohio)

Brown won his Senate reelection race comfortably in November, in a state Trump carried by 8 points against Clinton in 2016.

This is the core of his appeal to Democrats as a potential 2020 candidate: He is someone who understands the industrial Midwest in his marrow, and he can carve out a path to victory in that electorally vital region. 

Brown may not have the glitz of some other contenders, but his rumpled authenticity could play to his advantage, his boosters say. A heartland progressive, he has long enjoyed strong support from labor unions.

Two questions loom large: whether Brown really wants to run, and whether he can quickly get enough traction if he does so.

7. Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerSenate Democrats reelect Schumer as leader by acclamation  Hill associations push for more diversity in lawmakers' staffs Sanders celebrates Biden-Harris victory: 'Thank God democracy won out' MORE (D-N.J.)

On paper, Booker should be a formidable candidate: a young African-American senator with obvious oratorical gifts. 

But Booker has been dogged by suggestions that he is more interested in publicity than action, dating all the way back to his days as mayor of Newark, N.J. 

He has also sometimes been friendlier with the financial industry than today’s Democratic grass-roots voters might like. He famously criticized Obama’s 2012 campaign for attacking GOP nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBiden teams to meet with Trump administration agencies Paul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism MORE’s work for Bain Capital, though he swiftly backtracked.

Booker’s perceived love of the spotlight can attract eye-rolls from colleagues — a more recent example being his “Spartacus moment” during the Kavanaugh hearings

He will get his fair share of media attention if he runs, but he may need other contenders to stumble in order to vault into serious contention.

8. Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE's national security risk Democrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff YouTube temporarily suspends OANN account after spreading coronavirus misinformation MORE. (D-Minn.)

Klobuchar’s political abilities are often underrated — something she could prove one more time if she presses forward with a presidential run.

Klobuchar’s platform would, in essence, be based on an ability to connect with voters in the American heartland while committing no real sins of liberal heresy. Her legislative record involves work on issues that have appeal to Democrats and beyond them — lowering the costs of prescription drugs and protecting online privacy, for example.

Her public persona is affable and good-humored but one question is whether Democrats want a nominee to take the fight to Trump in a more aggressive way.

9. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Bloomberg, the media billionaire who served three terms as New York City’s mayor, has given strong indications that he is considering a run for the White House. 

“Do I think I could be a good president? Yes,” he told Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet The Press” in an interview that aired Sunday. He said he would make a decision by February.

Bloomberg’s path to the Democratic nomination is anything but clear, however. It would presumably involve winning over centrists and perhaps even disaffected Republicans with the promise of a candidacy that steers a middle ground and doesn’t pander to partisan or hard-left interests.

But that is likely to be a hard sell in a party where the energy is increasingly with progressives.

Bloomberg, who twice ran for mayor as a Republican before changing his party affiliation, seems an uneasy fit for the Democratic spirit of the times.

10. Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Social media responds to Harris making history: 'I feel like our ancestors are rejoicing' Ocasio-Cortez says she doesn't plan on 'staying in the House forever' MORE (D-N.Y.)

Gillibrand has made women’s issues a key part of her appeal. As a senator representing New York, she is well-known in the nation’s largest media market and one of the epicenters of Democratic fundraising.

Gillibrand also got an opportunity to display her guts when Trump took aim at her with what was widely interpreted as a sexual innuendo a year ago. She doubled down on her call for him to resign afterward.

Still, as with Booker, there is a distrust of Gillibrand in some quarters, rooted in her perceived penchant for self-publicity. Her willingness to buck the party line, as when she suggested former President Clinton should have resigned over his affair with Monica Lewinsky, has created enemies as well as friends.

More generally, the answer to how Gillibrand overtakes several of the names higher on this list remains a difficult one to answer.

Other potential candidates outside the top 10: Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, activist Tom Steyer, Rep. Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedyConor Lamb defeats Trump-backed challenger for reelection in Pennsylvania Van Drew fends off challenge from Kennedy after party switch Markey wins reelection in Massachusetts MORE III. (D-Mass.), former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellJuan Williams: Defeated Trump is in legal peril Taylor Swift allows song to be used in campaign ad Graham says SC people of color can go anywhere in the state but 'need to be conservative, not liberal' MORE (D-Calif.), Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what 'policing' means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight MORE (D-Md.)