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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 John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida 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 SchumerTrump casts doubt on hopes for quick stimulus deal after aides expressed optimism Schumer says he had 'serious talk' with Feinstein, declines to comment on Judiciary role Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo On The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits Overnight Health Care: CDC expands definition of 'close contact' after COVID-19 report | GOP coronavirus bill blocked in Senate | OxyContin maker agrees to B settlement with Trump administration 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 and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida Supreme Court reinstates ban on curbside voting in Alabama 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 RubioIntel officials say Iran, Russia seeking to influence election Senate Intel leaders warn of election systems threats Trump remarks put pressure on Barr 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 McConnellOn The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits Trump casts doubt on hopes for quick stimulus deal after aides expressed optimism Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid 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 BoehnerPelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats On The Trail: How Trump lost the law and order debate 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 BoehnerPelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats On The Trail: How Trump lost the law and order debate 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 BoustanyPartial disengagement based on democratic characteristics: A new era of US-China economic relations Lobbying world March tariff increase would cost 934K jobs, advocacy group says 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 RodgersConservatives seize on New York Post story to push Section 230 reform Race heats up for top GOP post on powerful Energy and Commerce Committee Hillicon Valley: Trump backs potential Microsoft, TikTok deal, sets September deadline | House Republicans request classified TikTok briefing | Facebook labels manipulated Pelosi video MORE (Wash.) in 2014, Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstThe Hill's Campaign Report: Obama to hit the campaign trail l Biden's eye-popping cash advantage l New battleground polls favor Biden Poll finds Ernst with 1-point lead in Iowa Senate is leaning to the Democrats, big time, with a wave MORE (Iowa) in 2015 and South Carolina Gov. Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyGraham says SC people of color can go anywhere in the state but 'need to be conservative, not liberal' 'The soul' versus 'law and order' Author Ryan Girdusky: RNC worked best when highlighting 'regular people' as opposed to 'standard Republicans' 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 HarrisObama to campaign for Biden in Florida Biden appears on Brené Brown's podcast to discuss 'empathy, unity and courage' The Hill's Campaign Report: Obama to hit the campaign trail l Biden's eye-popping cash advantage l New battleground polls favor Biden MORE (Calif.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandInternal Democratic poll: Desiree Tims gains on Mike Turner in Ohio House race Hillicon Valley: Facebook, Twitter's handling of New York Post article raises election night concerns | FCC to move forward with considering order targeting tech's liability shield | YouTube expands polices to tackle QAnon Democrats question Amazon over reported interference of workers' rights to organize MORE (N.Y.). Others pointed to Sen. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoDemocratic Senate campaign arm outraises GOP counterpart in September Hillicon Valley: DOJ proposes tech liability shield reform to Congress | Treasury sanctions individuals, groups tied to Russian malign influence activities | House Republican introduces bill to set standards for self-driving cars Senators introduce bipartisan bill to mandate digital apps disclose country of origin MORE (Nev.), who is not seen as a possible 2020 contender. And a surprising number pointed to Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosCook Report shifts 12 House races, all but one toward Democrats Calls grow for Democrats to ramp up spending in Texas House Democrats target Hispanic voters in battlegrounds with new barrage of ads 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 FeinsteinDemocrats to boycott committee vote on Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination The Senate should evoke RBG in its confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Pelosi, Mnuchin push stimulus talks forward, McConnell applies brakes 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 BoxerThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Harris launch Trump offensive in first joint appearance Bottom line Polls show big bounce to Biden ahead of Super Tuesday 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 ReidDemocrats to boycott committee vote on Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein The Memo: Biden stays slow and steady in face of criticism 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 JeffriesA tearful lesson of 2016: Polls don't matter if people don't vote Overnight Health Care: House Democrats slam pharma CEOs for price hikes driven by revenue, executive bonuses | Ex-FDA employees express worries to Congress over politicization of vaccines | Fauci said his mask stance was 'taken out of context' by Trump Top House Democrat: Parties 'much closer' to a COVID deal 'than we've ever been' 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.