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Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response

Democratic Party leaders are balancing a complex political calculus and a host of competing egos as they consider who they will choose to respond to President TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats, activists blast reported Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE's first State of the Union address later this month. 

More than 30 party strategists, leaders and members of Congress interviewed for this story said Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture How to fast-track climate action? EPA cutting super pollutant HFCs MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week Five takeaways on a surprisingly poor jobs report On The Money: Weekly jobless claims fall to 498K, hitting new post-lockdown low | House to advance appropriations bills in June, July MORE (D-Calif.) must decide just what message they want the prime-time address to convey. 

They may decide to feature the message Democrats will take to voters in November's midterm elections. They might opt to highlight a specific issue on which they contrast with Trump and the Republican Congress. Or they could pick a rising star to thrust into the spotlight, someone who conveys a new and different tone for a party that lacks a mega-star. 

But Schumer and Pelosi, the leaders who will jointly pick the Democrat responding to Trump, must also contend with a huge field of potential presidential candidates who are already jockeying ahead of the 2020 elections. Choosing anyone already seen as preparing a run for president risks angering dozens of other would-be candidates. Even if Schumer and Pelosi choose someone who is not seen as a possible candidate, he or she could be vaulted into the top tier with a successful speech.

Most Democrats interviewed for this story said they did not want Schumer and Pelosi to pick a potential Trump rival. 

"We don't need to offer the 2020 alternative this year. Trump's going to present his own bizarro reality about where the country stands, but the Democrat, whoever she or he is, needs to reframe the real issues facing the country and explain how Democrats would solve those problems," said Adam Hodge, a former Democratic National Committee spokesman.

"The challenge is selecting one potential 2020 nominee over the others presents the party with a choice it doesn't want and shouldn't take," said Scott Mulhauser, a longtime Democratic strategist who worked for Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit On The Money: Five takeaways on a surprisingly poor jobs report | GOP targets jobless aid after lackluster April gain MORE during the 2012 campaign. "You can't really do that this year without inviting all kinds of scrutiny that you don't need and the perception that you're playing favorites."

Still, State of the Union responses are notoriously fraught events, where the tiniest slip-up becomes a career-defining headline. No one remembers what Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDemocrats cool on Crist's latest bid for Florida governor Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  MORE (R-Fla.) said when he responded to former President Obama's 2013 address. Everyone remembers that he took a sip of water in the middle of his moment in the spotlight. 

"It is the hardest task in politics. The president's State of the Union is a jam-packed prime-time address with perfect lighting and crowd participation that you cannot beat on television. And then you ask somebody to follow it with basically a chair and a studio," said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week GOP is consumed by Trump conspiracy theories The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture MORE (R-Ky.).

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Asked who he would pick, Ron Klain, the former chief of staff to Biden and Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreHawaii legislature passes bill to implement automatic voter registration Libertarians elected Biden Gore believes China will 'overachieve' on emissions goal MORE, said he would choose his worst enemy in politics.
 
“The win-loss record of [State of the Union] responders (both Democratic and Republican) largely matches the win-loss record of the Washington Generals in playing the Globetrotters,” Klain said in an email. 

When Obama was in office, McConnell's staff and representatives from then-House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBudowsky: Liz Cheney vs. conservatives in name only House Republicans request hearing with Capitol Police Board for first time since 1945 Press: John Boehner: good author, bad leader MORE's (R-Ohio) office would meet months before the State of the Union to build a list of possible responders. They consulted with other party leaders, including the chairman of the Republican National Committee, before presenting a shorter list to McConnell and BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBudowsky: Liz Cheney vs. conservatives in name only House Republicans request hearing with Capitol Police Board for first time since 1945 Press: John Boehner: good author, bad leader MORE, who would make a final decision.

At times in recent years, the response has been meant to convey different messages. Sen. Jim Webb's (D-Va.) response to President George W. Bush's 2007 address sought to illustrate a Democratic Party unified against the war in Iraq. When Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on health care in September 2009, Republicans picked Rep. Charles BoustanyCharles William BoustanyFormer lawmakers call on leadership to focus on unity Partial disengagement based on democratic characteristics: A new era of US-China economic relations Lobbying world MORE (R-La.), a medical doctor, to deliver a rebuttal. 

Republicans focused their efforts late in Obama's term on illustrating the party's gender and racial diversity, tapping House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersHillicon Valley: US, UK authorities say Russian hackers exploited Microsoft vulnerabilities | Lawmakers push for more cyber funds in annual appropriations | Google child care workers ask for transportation stipend Lawmakers push for increased cybersecurity funds in annual appropriations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture MORE (Wash.) in 2014, Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstConservative Club for Growth PAC comes out against Stefanik to replace Cheney A bipartisan effort to prevent the scourge of sexual assault in the armed forces Ernst defends Cheney, calls for GOP unity MORE (Iowa) in 2015 and South Carolina Gov. Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyPollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates Will DeSantis, Rubio and Scott torch each other to vault from Florida to the White House? MORE, now Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, in 2016.

Some Democrats said the party should use this opportunity to introduce new faces after eight years in which Obama dominated the Democratic stage.

"We've got to do a better job of introducing Democratic stars to the nation, and we have not done that as well as we should have. I for one support presenting as many as these individuals as possible to the public," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). "We don't have the bench that Republicans have had, at least not in the Congress."

There is no consensus favorite among Democrats this year, though several competing camps have emerged. Some Democrats favor a speaker who would demonstrate the party's electoral wins in the Trump era. Others want to show off a female voice, at the height of the "Me Too" movement. And some want to try something completely out of the box, picking a messenger from outside the world of politics altogether.

Among the first group, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) stand out. Northam won his race in November by a surprisingly large margin, while Jones became the first Democrat in a generation to win a Senate seat in Alabama. Some suggested the two newcomers give the Democratic response side by side.

"Together, they'd send a message that Democrats win by offering a positive, policy-driven message, preferably one that emphasizes jobs and fairness — and that, in this current environment, can work in a lot of unexpected places," said Craig Varoga, a Democratic strategist who oversaw the party's House of Delegates races in Virginia last year.

In the second group, several party strategists mentioned potential 2020 candidates like Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris says Mexico, US can work together to improve quality of life in Northern Triangle Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms says 'it is time to pass the baton on to someone else' Harris's uncle discusses COVID-19 surge in India: 'The conditions are pretty bad' MORE (Calif.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandAustin tight lipped on whether to take sexual assault cases out of commanders' hands Gillibrand touts legislation to lower drug costs: This idea 'is deeply bipartisan' A bipartisan effort to prevent the scourge of sexual assault in the armed forces MORE (N.Y.). Others pointed to Sen. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoOn The Money: Incomes, consumer spending soared in March | Harris, senators work behind scenes on jobs package | Biden cancels some border wall construction Hillicon Valley: DOJ to review cyber challenges | Gaetz, House Republicans want to end funding for postal service surveillance | TikTok gets new CEO Americans for Prosperity launches campaign targeting six Democrats to oppose ending filibuster MORE (Nev.), who is not seen as a possible 2020 contender. And a surprising number pointed to Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosDemocrats confront difficult prospects for midterms Democrat Cheri Bustos to retire from Congress GOP campaign chief confident his party will win back House MORE (Ill.), who represents a more rural district Trump narrowly carried last year. Former Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.) said she would like to see Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap Lawmakers react to guilty verdict in Chauvin murder trial: 'Our work is far from done' Senate Democrats call on Biden to restore oversight of semiautomatic and sniper rifle exports MORE (Calif.), whom Trump attacked this week, give the address.

"She has unparalleled responsibilities to get to the bottom of Russian interference in 2016 election, which I think is most important issue Trump and Republican majorities continue to ignore, call a hoax and discredit," Tauscher said.

Finally, those Democrats hungry for an outside-the-Beltway choice named governors like Colorado's John Hickenlooper and Montana's Steve Bullock, big-city mayors like Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans or Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, and even Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who would be the first member of the millennial generation to deliver a response. Some suggested someone who is not in politics at all, like a teacher or a "Dreamer." 

"I’d pick a woman who teaches in a public school, to talk about the impact [the state and local tax deduction] is going to have on public school funding, and to set the stage for this year’s battles by talking about protecting Social Security and Medicare for working people," said Jeff Liszt, a Democratic pollster. "All of it while hammering home that Washington is working for corporations, not regular people."

There are no rules and few standards for offering a response to a State of the Union address. Since the first response, offered by Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) and House Minority Leader Gerald Ford (R-Mich.) in 1966, during the Lyndon Johnson administration, parties have tried to offer their alternatives from inside the Capitol or from the heartland, alone or in groups, live and in pre-recorded videos.

In 1972, four Democratic senators and seven members of Congress hosted a 53-minute show that included unscripted calls from the public, according to the Senate Historian's office. In 1974, Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) responded to President Richard Nixon's State of the Union the day after Nixon addressed Congress. Democrats skipped altogether a response to President Gerald Ford in 1977. And in 1984, Democrats set a record by showcasing 13 responders, ranging from former Vice President Walter Mondale to Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Joe Biden (D-Del.), House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) and a young Rep. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerBottom line Trump administration halting imports of cotton, tomatoes from Uighur region of China Biden inaugural committee to refund former senator's donation due to foreign agent status MORE (D-Calif.). 

Schumer and Pelosi might even decide to keep the response for themselves. Opposition party leaders have responded to the president on 21 occasions, most recently in 2005, when Pelosi and then-Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidBiden's first 100 days is stylistic 'antithesis' of Trump The Memo: Washington's fake debate on 'bipartisanship' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring MORE (D-Nev.) responded to Bush.

But, Holmes cautioned, the more ambitious the set-up for an opposition response, the more likely the night could end in spectacular disaster.

"You can get way too cute in a hurry," Holmes said. "If you try to do too much stagecraft or if you try to go outside the lines of a seasoned professional or politician, you really are rolling the dice."

Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesOn The Money: Breaking down Biden's .8T American Families Plan | Powell voices confidence in Fed's handle on inflation | Wall Street basks in 'Biden boom' Democratic leaders push to boost congressional staff pay Troy Carter wins race to fill Cedric Richmond's Louisiana House seat MORE (D-N.Y.) said the State of the Union response pick will have long faded by the time November’s midterms arrive.

“It’s an important short-term consideration, but at the end of the day most Americans have no idea who delivered the rebuttal to Trump’s first [speech to Congress] last year, and it will long be forgotten whoever delivers it this time around,” Jeffries said. “The singular issue that will drive the electorate in November will be, ‘Do you support the direction that Donald Trump has taken this country, or do you have problems with it?’"

Mike Lillis contributed to this story.