2020 Dems jockey for position before midterm elections

Senate Democrats with White House ambitions are stepping up their political activities with the start of the 2020 presidential election cycle less than 70 days away.

Washington’s focus is currently on the battle for control of the Senate and House, which will most likely be decided on Nov. 6. But the following day will mark the unofficial start of the 2020 presidential election cycle, and the field of Democrats vying to challenge President Trump will be crowded.

{mosads}There are at least six likely presidential candidates in the Senate Democratic Caucus: Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), as well as Bernie Sanders (Vt.), an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

But there are other possible contenders, ranging from Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Chris Murphy (Conn.) to House lawmakers such as Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.). And Rep. John Delaney, a three-term lawmaker from Maryland, formally announced his presidential campaign in July 2017. 

The potential candidates have stepped up their jockeying in recent weeks to separate themselves from the pack. Once the new election cycle begins, it will be a race for attention.

“I think it will ramp up quite quickly,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science who served several fellowship stints in the Senate. “There’s a brief period of relapse after the congressional election — people sorting things out and looking at what the next Congress looks like. After that dust settles, the active phase of the 2020 presidential campaign will begin.”

White House aspirants on Capitol Hill will have to contend with a pack of possible presidential hopefuls outside of Washington: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Non-politicians also in the mix include former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and billionaire financier Tom Steyer.

And looming over them all is former Vice President Joe Biden, whose candidacy could depend on whether he secures the endorsement of former President Obama.

Warren, who usually eschews reporters on Capitol Hill, has stepped up her media outreach in recent days, delivering a major address at the National Press Club last week to unveil what she described as a “bold” plan to tackle corruption in Washington.

She also sat down with Andrea Mitchell of NBC News last week to discuss her anti-corruption initiative and to criticize the Trump administration for taking a soft approach to Russia’s cyber activity, including its interference in the 2016 presidential election.

On Wednesday, Warren called on the Commerce Department’s inspector general to investigate the administration’s exemption process for steel and aluminum tariffs.

“This process appears to be running on an ad hoc basis, with little transparency, and bending to political pressure from well-connected lobbyists and administration officials,” she charged.

Congressional Democrats say Warren has a close-knit political team that would like to see her declare her candidacy but wonder whether she has the necessary fire in the belly to make a run.

Democratic donors say winning attention early will be the key to building a fundraising machine in 2019.

“It’s hard to run nationally, to be in Iowa, et cetera, without some base of dollars,” said Alan Kessler, a longtime Democratic fundraiser and donor, who noted that carving out a niche in the political conversation is crucial to attracting campaign dollars.

“People talking you up in turn generates needed fundraising,” he added.

That could be why some candidates such as Warren are becoming more willing to overcome shyness with the press, even though it raises the chances of making a public gaffe.

Kessler said visits to Philadelphia, a Democratic fundraising hub, from politicians in the mix for 2020 have picked up in recent weeks.

Sanders has emerged as a potent force this year, backing progressive candidates who have challenged and sometimes upended rising stars favored by the Democratic establishment. One such example is Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who beat former Rep. Gwen Graham (D) in Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in Florida.

Sanders congratulated Gillum on his victory and praised him as a candidate who demands “real change.”

The Vermont senator has campaigned for other progressive candidates around the country like Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who is running to become Minnesota’s attorney general and the first statewide elected Muslim official in U.S. history.

Sanders last month joined Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the self-described democratic socialist who knocked off Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), a member of the Democratic leadership, in a June primary in New York City, to campaign for House candidate James Thompson in Kansas.

Gillibrand shook up the political establishment earlier this summer by being the first prominent Democrat to call for the abolishment of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Behind the scenes, she has argued for Senate Democrats to hammer home to voters the threat that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh poses to Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that established a constitutional right to an abortion, even though centrist Democrats would prefer to focus on other issues.

Gillibrand’s aggressive style has helped her win attention, but it has turned off some Democrats, according to a senior Senate Democratic aide who described her as overly ambitious and pointed to her past support for gun rights while serving in the House.

The junior senator from New York now says she’s “embarrassed” by her past stance on guns and this year called out the National Rifle Association’s “chokehold” on Congress.

Booker, like Warren, has become more chatty with the press in recent months and is leading opposition to Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Some Republican colleagues accused Booker of crossing the line when he declared that senators who don’t oppose the nominee are “complicit in evil.” 

More recently, Booker has been backing away from a possible deal between Trump, Republicans such as Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Mike Lee (Utah) and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) on criminal justice reform.

Booker, a longtime advocate of criminal justice reform, told The Hill this month that it would be tough for him to accept a bill that included fewer sentencing reforms than the bipartisan Senate bill he helped negotiate.

The New Jersey Democrat delivered the keynote address at Netroots Nation, a gathering of liberal activists, a few weeks ago. 

Harris has spent months campaigning and raising money for Democratics this year, collecting more than $5 million for Democratic candidates and gathering political chits that could come in handy during a 2020 primary.

She has called for a thorough reexamination of ICE — stopping short of Gillibrand’s proposal to abolish the 15-year-old agency — and earlier this year took a stand against voting for a government funding bill that failed to protect hundreds of thousands of immigrants who lost their legal status when Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Harris has developed a friendly rapport with reporters on Capitol Hill and as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee has emerged as an authoritative voice on Russian interference in U.S. elections.

“Russia attacked our country during the 2016 election and it’s clear they are continuing to attack us today,” she tweeted earlier this month.

Like Booker, Harris is a longtime advocate for criminal justice reform but has held back from endorsing the prison and sentencing reform deal under negotiation in the Senate.

If the deal runs afoul of liberal interest groups, backing it could be a major mistake ahead of the 2020 primary season.

Merkley has garnered less attention than some of his Senate colleagues, but he has worked steadily to lay the groundwork for a possible presidential bid. He visited South Carolina, a key primary state, for a second time this month and has made trips to Iowa and New Hampshire as well this year.

The Oregon Democrat has visited Iowa twice in 2018 and plans to attend the Polk County Steak Fry next month in Des Moines.

He took a four-day swing through New Hampshire last month.

Merkley made headlines in June when he tried to visit a detention center for child immigrants in Texas, posting a Facebook Live video of the experience that went viral.

Tags Bernie Sanders Chris Murphy Chuck Grassley Cory Booker Dick Durbin Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Eric Swalwell Gwen Graham Jeff Merkley Joe Biden John Delaney Keith Ellison Kirsten Gillibrand Mike Lee Sherrod Brown
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