Progressives hunt for new, younger leaders post-Sanders-Warren era

Progressives are on the quiet hunt for a new generation of leaders, eagerly awaiting the outcome of the midterms to plot their next steps. 

“We’ve been talking about fresh blood for years,” said one Democratic strategist who reluctantly supported President Biden in the 2020 election. “Years! And every time we go back to the dinosaurs because we say we have nothing better.”  

Progressives’ two biggest national fixtures — Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — themselves aren’t young and some in the party are ready for a blank canvas in 2024 or beyond, particularly if Biden decides not to seek reelection or if November’s outcome is less than favorable for their side. 

There was a nascent effort this spring by close allies to prop up Sanders, 81, as an alternative if Biden doesn’t run and a leaked memo surfaced with talking points about his possible future plans.  

Sanders didn’t shut down the idea of competing for the Democratic presidential nomination for a third time, saying this week in an interview with CBS News: “I haven’t made that decision.” 

But many Democrats are hesitant if not outright hostile to the prospect of nominating a man older than the sitting president to compete against what’s expected to be a close presidential race in a divided country. 

“We should be finding ways to elevate some rising stars in the party who have been crowded out by people like Bernie,” another Democratic strategist said, making the case that an overhaul is needed when the top figures of the party are in their 70s and 80s. 

Biden has repeatedly said he plans to campaign for a second term, but that hasn’t stopped Democrats from looking around to see who could fill the progressive lane. If Sanders doesn’t do it, the question of who steps in becomes more puzzling. 

Warren is quite a bit younger than her fellow Senate liberal and represents something that progressives want on their slate: gender diversity. 

She has reinserted herself into the political debate recently through Biden’s student loan forgiveness policy, which she helped champion alongside Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). 

But while Warren, 73, was popular with many women and college-educated voters in 2020, she failed to get the kind of traction that Sanders did in the Democratic primary, including with working class and Black voters. 

Her distant finishes in several early primary contests deflated the momentum that she enjoyed earlier into the cycle, coming in at fourth place in New Hampshire, which borders her home state of Massachusetts.  

Those shortcomings contribute to the view by some in the party that voters clearly want another choice. 

“Women of all ages don’t see themselves reflected or considered in the decisions being made politically or policy wise, so they definitely want something to change,” said Nayyera Haq, a former Obama administration official.  

“As a geriatric millennial with two kids and a mortgage, I also wonder when I’ll have the opportunity to vote for someone closer to my generation,” Haq said. “My parents had that option with Bill Clinton, G.W. Bush and could vote younger with Obama. This idea that a candidate gets your lived experience is very compelling for voters.”  

Enter another possibility: Pete Buttigieg, who took voters by surprise in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he came in first and second place respectively. 

Biden, his former rival, ultimately selected the 40-year-old to be Transportation secretary, allowing him to travel around the country promoting the infrastructure bill ahead of the midterms. 

But there’s one problem that many progressives are eager to point out with Mayor Pete: They don’t claim him as their own.  

Many sympathetic to the Sanders-Warren faction of the party saw Buttigieg last cycle as Biden-lite, as too moderate for their liking and as someone who represents the old guard’s ideology, if not age. 

That sentiment is still alive and well in some progressive pockets. 

“I don’t think you’re ever going to be able to get the Bernie movement, Warren movement behind Pete obviously,” said Corbin Trent, who co-founded Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress. 

On the other side of the country, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), 54, is getting noticed as an outspoken leader in the nation’s most liberal state, most recently by being critical of what he sees as Democrats’ soft stance against Republicans. 

People talk about “Mayor Pete being able to do some things, and I think Gavin Newsom’s got a better shot because he’s a blank slate nationally,” said Trent.  

While he has already gotten Democrats speculating about his 2024 aspirations, his most recent moves have angered some who wonder whether he’s helping or hurting their chances in 2022 first.  

Newsom has recently feuded with Texas and Florida Govs. Greg Abbott and Ron DeStantis, two potential GOP presidential candidates, creating a divide among Democrats. 

“I think Gavin Newsom is just like, this is going to make national news,” said Michael Ceraso, who worked on both Sanders’s and Buttigieg’s presidential campaigns, referencing Newsom’s highly critical comments of the party at a recent event in Austin, Texas. 

“It’s another version of elite moral grandstanding. No one is asking you to be the champion of this stuff,” he said.  

Another California progressive who is to the left of Newsom, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), has taken steps to position himself as a potential presidential aspirant. Khanna has said he will support Biden if he runs again, but some Democrats still wonder if that will happen. A lot can change between now and when he would have to announce.

“Fresh ideas and voices are critical to a healthy democracy,” Khanna told The Hill on Friday. “Across the country, we are hearing from young people who are mobilizing for change and demanding new leaders to address issues like the climate crisis. To this new generation, I say: Be loud and keep pushing.” 

Like Buttigieg, he’s traveled to New Hampshire and has published a book. And at just 46, he’s considerably younger than most other hypothetical contenders. He’s also not white, a factor that distinguishes him from Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg and Newsom. 

One major Democratic donor said Khanna is “being whispered about as heir apparent to Bernie,” while quietly making the rounds. The Silicon Valley progressive formerly co-chaired Sanders’s 2020 campaign and has since focused on an economic populist pitch. 

“Mayor Pete came out of nowhere and fired people up. I still have some hope for Ro Khanna being able to do some things and shake some things up,” said Trent. “He’s got the desire for sure in spades. He’s also put in a lot of work in getting more TV ready and media ready. It’s something he’s focused on.” He’s “strategic and cunning in a very good way.” 

Khanna is well thought of among progressives in Washington, including within the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but he’s not a known entity. And unlike Newsom, he lacks broader national recognition — something he’d have to start working on early. 

“He’s worked a little in Iowa, he’s done some of the groundwork already,” Trent added. “I think you end up with a wide-open field and I think he becomes way more possible.” 

Another option is Democrats’ most recognizable young leader on the left — and arguably their most controversial. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) will be old enough to be president by inauguration day in January 2025. But the most visible member of the “squad” hasn’t made any obvious moves to get on many Democrats’ shortlists just yet. 

Republicans have a particular fixation on the congresswoman in her deep blue New York district, and some in the party say she’s too divisive to be considered for a national spot. Some close to her even doubt that she has the desire to do it. 

But the 32-year-old congresswoman has the name recognition and what others believe is enough star quality to bring the progressive movement into the future and widen it to include new electorates. 

What Sanders and Warren started, some argue, Ocasio-Cortez could help move the ball forward.  

“AOC represents a changing of the guard,” said a senior adviser to Florida Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist, who has worked for other down-ballot candidates. “Representation that looks like and has the same shared experience that many of the voters we’re trying to recruit have had. That matters,” the adviser said.  

“She’s smart, authentic and principled. That’s a rare combination in Washington.” 

Tags Bernie Sanders Biden Elizabeth Warren Gavin Newsom Pete Buttigieg

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