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 John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Chad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary Schumer blocks drug pricing measure during Senate fight, seeking larger action MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump knocks testimony from 'Never Trumpers' at Louisiana rally Jordan calls Pelosi accusing Trump of bribery 'ridiculous' USMCA deal close, but not 'imminent,' Democrats say 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 BidenButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California 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 RubioGOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump Paul's demand to out whistleblower rankles GOP colleagues 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 McConnellKavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation Overnight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families On The Money: Trump appeals to Supreme Court to keep tax returns from NY prosecutors | Pelosi says deal on new NAFTA 'imminent' | Mnuchin downplays shutdown threat | Trump hits Fed after Walmart boasts strong earnings 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 GoreWarren goes local in race to build 2020 movement The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Krystal Ball hits media over questions on Sanders's electability 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 BoehnerFrom learning on his feet to policy director Is Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush 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 BoehnerFrom learning on his feet to policy director Is Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush 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 BoustanyMarch tariff increase would cost 934K jobs, advocacy group says Bottom Line On The Money: US adds 155k jobs in November | Unemployment holds at 3.7 percent | Wage growth strengthening | Trump signs stopgap spending bill delaying shutdown 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 RodgersShimkus announces he will stick with plan to retire after reconsidering Bipartisan group reveals agricultural worker immigration bill DC's liaison to rock 'n' roll MORE (Wash.) in 2014, Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Turkish media paints White House visit as Erdoğan triumph over Trump Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators at White House MORE (Iowa) in 2015 and South Carolina Gov. Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyNikki Haley fires the first shot in the GOP's post-Trump war Sanford: 'It carries real weight' to speak against Trump 'while in office' Haley seeks to quell talk she could replace Pence 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 Devi HarrisBiden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Overnight Health Care: Cigarette smoking rates at new low | Spread of vaping illness slowing | Dems in Congress push to block Trump abortion rule Democratic senators introduce bill to push ICE to stop 'overuse' of solitary confinement MORE (Calif.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandMaloney primary challenger calls on her to return, donate previous campaign donations from Trump Senate confirms controversial circuit court nominee She Should Run launches initiative to expand number of women in political process MORE (N.Y.). Others pointed to Sen. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoHouse and Senate Dems implore McConnell to sign DACA legislation to protect 'Dreamers' Democrats unifying against Joe Kennedy Senate bid Former state senator gets DSCC endorsement in North Carolina Senate race MORE (Nev.), who is not seen as a possible 2020 contender. And a surprising number pointed to Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi accuses Trump of 'bribery' in Ukraine dealings DCCC adds senior staffers after summer departures DCCC raises more than M in October 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 introduce Violence Against Women Act after bipartisan talks break down Harris shares video addressing staffers the night Trump was elected: 'This is some s---' Centrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda 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 BoxerHillicon Valley: Ocasio-Cortez clashes with former Dem senator over gig worker bill | Software engineer indicted over Capital One breach | Lawmakers push Amazon to remove unsafe products Ocasio-Cortez blasts former Dem senator for helping Lyft fight gig worker bill Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates 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 ReidThe Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Bottom Line Lobbying world 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 JeffriesUSMCA deal close, but not 'imminent,' Democrats say House Democrat's Halloween display mourns passed bills that die in McConnell's 'legislative graveyard' Democrats unveil impeachment procedures 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.