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 TrumpTrump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump tweets ICE will begin removing 'millions' of undocumented migrants 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 SchumerEx-state senator in North Carolina enters race against Tillis Ex-state senator in North Carolina enters race against Tillis Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCalifornia Democrat in swing district calls for Trump impeachment inquiry California Democrat in swing district calls for Trump impeachment inquiry Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments 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 BidenTrump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' Trump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' 2020 Democrats look to cut into Biden's lead with black voters 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 RubioOvernight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments Senators revive effort to create McCain human rights commission 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 McConnellJon Stewart rips into McConnell for saying he's 'bent out of shape' over 9/11 victim fund Jon Stewart rips into McConnell for saying he's 'bent out of shape' over 9/11 victim fund Tensions with Iran reach new stage over uranium threat MORE (R-Ky.).

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“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 BoehnerTed Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Ted Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Rep. Amash stokes talk of campaign against Trump 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 BoehnerTed Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Ted Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Rep. Amash stokes talk of campaign against Trump 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 RodgersLawmakers celebrate 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote The GOP's commitment to electing talented women can help party retake the House McCain and Dingell: Inspiring a stronger Congress MORE (Wash.) in 2014, Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstDemocrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Democrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Cruz, Ocasio-Cortez efforts on birth control access face major obstacles MORE (Iowa) in 2015 and South Carolina Gov. Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyOvernight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments UN nominee Kelly Craft to face confirmation hearing Wednesday 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 HarrisTrump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' Trump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' 2020 Democrats look to cut into Biden's lead with black voters MORE (Calif.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandOvernight Health Care: Democrats attack after Trump revives talk of ObamaCare replacement | Cruz, Ocasio-Cortez efforts on birth control face major obstacles | CVS investing M to fight teen e-cig use Overnight Health Care: Democrats attack after Trump revives talk of ObamaCare replacement | Cruz, Ocasio-Cortez efforts on birth control face major obstacles | CVS investing M to fight teen e-cig use Trump's 2020 campaign strategy is to be above the law MORE (N.Y.). Others pointed to Sen. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoHouse panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices House panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties MORE (Nev.), who is not seen as a possible 2020 contender. And a surprising number pointed to Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosDCCC chair: Brooks retirement signals challenge for GOP women DCCC chair: Brooks retirement signals challenge for GOP women Democrats set to use McConnell's legislative graveyard against him 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 FeinsteinHillicon Valley: GOP senator wants one agency to run tech probes | Huawei expects to lose B in sales from US ban | Self-driving car bill faces tough road ahead | Elon Musk tweets that he 'deleted' his Twitter account Hillicon Valley: GOP senator wants one agency to run tech probes | Huawei expects to lose B in sales from US ban | Self-driving car bill faces tough road ahead | Elon Musk tweets that he 'deleted' his Twitter account New push to regulate self-driving cars faces tough road 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 BoxerOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Hispanic civil rights icon endorses Harris for president 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 ReidTrump weighs in on UFOs in Stephanopoulos interview Trump weighs in on UFOs in Stephanopoulos interview Impeachment will reelect Trump 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 JeffriesDems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump 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.