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Cory Booker kicks off 2020 maneuvering in the Senate

Cory Booker kicks off 2020 maneuvering in the Senate
© Haiyun Jiang

Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) decision to testify Wednesday against Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsHarris to resign from Senate seat on Monday Rosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' Sessions, top DOJ officials knew 'zero tolerance' would separate families, watchdog finds MORE (R-Ala.), President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGiuliani used provisional ballot to vote in 2020 election, same method he disparaged in fighting to overturn results Trump gets lowest job approval rating in final days as president Fox News' DC managing editor Bill Sammon to retire MORE’s pick for attorney general, is the first clear signal that the 2020 maneuvering in the upper chamber has begun. 

Booker is taking the unprecedented step of testifying against a fellow senator who has been selected for a Cabinet post.

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The 47-year-old is one of a handful of Senate Democrats viewed as promising candidates for the White House in 2020 at a time when few governors are considered top-flight options to challenge Trump in four years.

He is using a strategy that other senators are expected to employ over the next several years to boost their national profile: taking a hard line against the Trump administration.

The others are Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden's minimum wage push faces uphill battle with GOP What to watch for in Biden Defense pick's confirmation hearing Biden selects Gensler for SEC chair, Rohit Chopra to lead CFPB MORE (Mass.), who has a large loyal following within the liberal grass roots; Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocrats looking to speed through Senate impeachment trial With Senate at stake, Georgia is on all our minds Build trust in vaccines by investing in community workers MORE (N.Y.) and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharGoogle completes Fitbit acquisition Hillicon Valley: Fringe social networks boosted after Capitol attack | Planned protests spark fears of violence in Trump's final days | Election security efforts likely to gain ground in Democrat-controlled Congress US Chamber of Commerce to stop supporting some lawmakers following the Capitol riots MORE (Minn.), two leading women in the upper chamber; Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Health Care: Testing capacity strained as localities struggle with vaccine staffing | Health workers refusing vaccine is growing problem | Incoming CDC director expects 500,000 COVID deaths by mid-February COVID-19 testing capacity strained as localities struggle with vaccine staffing GOP senators wrestle with purging Trump from party MORE (Conn.), who has made a name for himself on gun control; Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownFacebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Biden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs Streamlining the process of prior authorization for medical and surgical procedures MORE (Ohio), who represents a pivotal battleground state; and Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael Kaine'I saw my life flash before my eyes': An oral history of the Capitol attack 7 surprise moments from a tumultuous year in politics Robert E. Lee statue removed from US Capitol MORE (Va.), Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonJuan Williams: The real 'Deep State' is pro-Trump Rep. John Katko: Why I became the first Republican lawmaker to support impeachment Can we protect our country — from our rulers, and ourselves? MORE’s running mate in 2016.

Warren has been the most active of this group in rallying her demoralized party to stand up to the president-elect, focusing her criticism on Sessions and senior Trump adviser Stephen Bannon. 

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCowboys for Trump founder arrested following Capitol riot Graham pushes Schumer for vote to dismiss impeachment article Biden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs MORE (N.Y.) struck a conciliatory tone right after the election by pledging to look for common ground with Trump, though he has also vowed to fight the incoming administration when necessary. The Democratic base wants the party to take on Trump, whom many liberals view with fear and disdain.

Booker’s plan to appear before the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in an attempt to derail Sessions’s confirmation is being viewed as a bold move to raise his profile.

“It takes a lot of guts for a United States senator to go in to offer testimony in opposition to one of his colleagues. … I can’t remember this ever happening,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who served as a senior adviser to Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden pushing to cancel Keystone XL pipeline as soon as he takes office: reports Biden tax-hike proposals face bumpy road ahead Senate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster MORE’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign last year.

The testimony will give Booker, who is black, plenty of national media attention and a platform to address civil rights, which Democratic groups have flagged as a major concern with respect to Sessions being attorney general.

“He is someone with a demonstrated leadership in civil rights and he feels very strongly about Sen. Sessions’s civil rights record,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and strategist. “We’re in a unique moment here where we have a new president who’s trying to put a bunch of people into office who are extreme.”

“In the face of the extremism, Democrats are going to stand up and say something,” he added.

Republicans, however, say Booker is breaching Senate traditions of comity for the sake of his own his presidential ambitions.

“I’m very disappointed that Sen. Booker has chosen to start his 2020 presidential campaign by testifying against Sen. Sessions,” Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonGOP senators wrestle with purging Trump from party Officials brace for second Trump impeachment trial Booker: It would be 'constitutionally dangerous' not to conduct full Trump impeachment trial MORE (R-Ark.) said in a statement posted on Facebook.

He slammed Booker’s testimony as “a disgraceful breach of custom” and questioned his motives by noting that last year the New Jersey legislator said he was “honored” to partner with Sessions on a resolution honoring civil rights activists.

A spokesman for Booker pointed to his boss’s statement from earlier this week: “I do not take lightly the decision to testify against a Senate colleague. … Senator Sessions’ decades-long record is concerning in a number of ways, from his opposition to bipartisan criminal justice reform to his views on bipartisan drug policy reform, from his efforts earlier in his career to deny citizens voting rights to his criticism of the Voting Rights Act, from his failure to defend the civil rights of women, minorities, and LGBT Americans to his opposition to common sense, bipartisan immigration reform.”

Booker is up for reelection in 2020. New Jersey state officials could not be reached for comment at press time on the question of whether Booker can run for the Senate and the White House simultaneously. A Nov. 14 report on NJ.com suggests that Booker would have to choose one.

While Democrats with possible White House ambitions are figuring out how to best position themselves for 2020, it’s a topic they don’t want to discuss publicly.

“I’m not sure that anybody running for president in 2020 is going to tell you in January of 2017,” Murphy told The Hill.

When asked about her interest in running for president, Klobuchar on Tuesday quickly ducked into the Senate Democratic lunch, telling a reporter, “I’ve got to eat food.”

Later she said, “I’m representing Minnesota in the Senate, and we haven’t even sworn in this president.”

“I’m not thinking about that at all,” said Klobuchar, who recently decided against a run for governor.

Elmendorf and other Democratic strategists say the Senate bench of potential presidential candidates is deep, naming Booker, Warren, Klobuchar, Gillibrand, Murphy, Kaine and Brown.

Kaine, however, has said publicly he won’t run in 2020.

Others on the list include Colorado Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetTop Democrat pushes for tying unemployment insurance to economic conditions 50-50 Senate opens the door to solutions outlasting Trump's moment of violence Build trust in vaccines by investing in community workers MORE and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillFormer McCaskill aides launch PAC seeking to thwart Hawley Ex-GOP senator blasts Hawley's challenge to electoral vote count as 'highly destructive attack' Harrison seen as front-runner to take over DNC at crucial moment MORE.

“There are a lot,” Elmendorf said. “I am a big believer that we need younger people, new faces and all of those people as new faces.”

The biggest challenge of these senators — with the exception of Warren, who has a prominent national profile — is the need to raise their name identification with voters and donors outside the Beltway.

“Donald Trump is going to give people a great opportunity to build that profile. If you’re a Democrat, you have a lot of opportunities to show you can stand up to this guy, which people in the party want to see,” Elmendorf added.

A potential complication for senators viewing possible White House runs four years from now is that many of them face reelection in 2018.

Brown, Gillibrand, Klobuchar, McCaskill, Murphy and Warren have to win reelection next year. Brown and McCaskill are running in states that Trump won by healthy margins and may have tough races.

Brown on Tuesday said he is running for a full Senate term in 2018 and is not interested in vying for the Democratic presidential nomination two years later.

“I have no interest. I want to do this,” he told The Hill, referring to his Senate job.

McCaskill said she also plans to serve a full six-year term if reelected next year.

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s a problem,” she said. “I don’t think that’s an issue at all. I’d be more worried about a problem with my family’s health than I would be running for president.”

Democratic strategists, however, say running for Senate reelection in 2018 could serve as a springboard for senators to White House campaigns in 2020 by giving them the chance to reach out to donors around the country.

“George W. Bush won a very impressive election for governor of Texas in 1998 and that very much helped to launch his presidential campaign in 2000,” Devine said.

“Hillary Clinton won reelection in 2006 [to the Senate before the 2008 presidential campaign] and raised a lot of money,” he added. “It really depends on how you do in the campaign.

“Can you win a decisive victory that can demonstrate to people outside your state that you have the capacity to win voters from the other party and independents? Can you raise a lot of resources, not just from within your own state but from around the country?”