Dem Senator open to bid from the left in 2020

Dem Senator open to bid from the left in 2020
© Greg Nash

PORTLAND, Ore. — Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyMcConnell says he's 'honored' to be WholeFoods Magazine's 2019 'Person of the Year' Overnight Energy: Protesters plan Black Friday climate strike | 'Father of EPA' dies | Democrats push EPA to abandon methane rollback Warren bill would revoke Medals of Honor for Wounded Knee massacre MORE (D-Ore.) is quietly building bridges to liberal advocacy groups, a sign that he’s available for a 2020 bid, even as the Democratic field of potential White House hopefuls fills with better-known progressives.

Merkley, the soft-spoken liberal who sent his kids to the same public school he attended in a blue-collar neighborhood here, commands neither the star power nor the crowd-thrilling electricity of his close Senate allies, Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers Reject National Defense Authorization Act, save Yemen instead MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers Krystal Ball rips Warren's 'passive-aggressive' swipes at rivals MORE (D-Mass.). But what he lacks in wattage, he has begun making up for with powerful new friends.

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Every two weeks, Merkley’s Senate office plays host to a meeting between progressive senators — Warren is a frequent attendee — and the outside groups channeling Democratic excitement ahead of this fall’s midterm elections. The “inside-outside” meetings, as Merkley calls them, give liberal groups like Indivisible, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Daily Kos a chance to compare notes.

“We have to do a lot better job in coordinating the inside-outside conversation, for these mass-action groups to understand the battles we face in this building, for us to understand their sentiments, their organizations, their passions, and try to have us all moving in the same direction,” Merkley said in a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office. “Maybe not using the same boats or the same paddles or moving the same speed, but at least not crashing into each other.”

As Merkley plays host, he has also built alliances with those groups, which could serve as a platform for a presidential run. 

Merkley, 61, is one of a handful of lesser-known potential candidates to have campaigned for fellow Democrats in both Iowa and New Hampshire this year, trips that raised eyebrows among progressives. He has stumped for other contenders in Nevada, California and Idaho, and he said he plans more travel later this year — focused, he insists, on helping his party in the midterms, rather than himself down the line.

“I’m keeping the options open, but that’s a 2020 issue, and I’m really focused on 2018. I am so profoundly disturbed by the direction of our country,” Merkley said.

But on the sidelines, Merkley and several top aides have held preliminary discussions with outside advisers about the initial steps to a presidential bid, according to those who have spoken with the Merkley team.

Robert Stoll, a longtime Democratic donor and activist who got his start in politics running Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign in Oregon in 1964, said he and Merkley had discussed some of the challenges presented by the modern presidency, including the complete lack of privacy that comes with the Oval Office. Stoll declined to detail those discussions, but he traveled to Iowa with Merkley at the invitation of another progressive icon, former Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinNew Hampshire parochialism, not whiteness, bedevils Democrats Democrats must question possible political surveillance Wisconsin lawmaker gets buzz-cut after vowing not to cut hair until sign language bill passed MORE (D).

Merkley’s advisers and strategists say he is positioning himself to take advantage of an opening on the progressive left, should both Warren and Sanders take a pass on 2020. While that may seem like a long shot — Sanders has already begun staffing up a political committee, and Warren has been polishing her résumé on foreign affairs — several Merkley advisers repeatedly wondered aloud whether either would actually jump in the race.

“It’s not clear that Sen. Sanders or Elizabeth Warren will be running,” said Jeanne Atkins, chairwoman of the Oregon Democratic Party and Merkley’s former state director. “He knows there will be a lot of different voices seeking to be heard. I think he does believe he’s got something to offer.”

Others in Portland Democratic circles, who asked not to be quoted discussing their home-state senator, said Merkley appeared to be setting himself up instead as an attractive vice presidential nominee.  

In an age of President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed MORE and politics by Twitter, Merkley said the next president should take the opposite tack.

“I would like to see an anti-Trump. By that I mean somebody who has lived their lives working to try to make the world a better place, who sees that as their mission in life. Their mission is not to enrich the already rich Americans; their mission is not to build a personal empire; their mission is not to build a personal ego; their mission is to make the world a better place,” he said.

“It’d be nice to have a president who understands the core dimensions of what it is to be a working American, trying to get your feet on the ground, struggling with an economy where there are fewer and fewer living-wage, full-time jobs,” he said.

Merkley said Trump lacks “intellectual curiosity,” pointing to last year’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Trump hosted House Republicans in a Rose Garden ceremony after they passed the bill, but within days he called it a “mean” bill before reversing himself again and championing its passage in the Senate — where it fell a single vote short.

“It’d be nice to have somebody who actually understood that this isn’t just about political victories, this is about making the world work better. If you’re going to make the world work better, you have to actually pay attention to some of the basic details of what a bill does,” Merkley said.

Merkley said discussions about impeaching Trump were premature, as special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay Trump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts MORE continues what appears to be a wide-ranging investigation into those in Trump’s orbit.

“I think this president is way off track in many, many ways. The Mueller report is eventually going to provide a lot of material that may ultimately determine what happens, but we don’t have that report yet. I think we’re best off really focusing on the grass-roots political battle,” he said.

In the Senate, Merkley is closely aligned with a liberal cadre of Democrats that includes Sanders, Warren and Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSherrod Brown backs new North American trade deal: 'This will be the first trade agreement I've ever voted for' Trump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field On The Money: Pelosi, Trump tout deal on new NAFTA | McConnell says no trade vote until impeachment trial wraps up | Lawmakers push spending deadline to Thursday MORE (D-Ohio), among others.

He was the only sitting senator to endorse Sanders over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMore than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls Trump is threatening to boycott the debates — here's how to make sure he shows up Trey Gowdy returns to Fox News as contributor MORE in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, and at that year’s Democratic National Convention, he became something of a liaison between Sanders backers and the rest of the party; Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTurf war derails bipartisan push on surprise medical bills Senate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA CEO group pushes Trump, Congress on paid family, medical leave MORE (N.Y.) sought Merkley’s help to quell some of the louder Bernie backers.

Amid those politicians with larger footprints, how does Merkley stand out? He pointed to his story, a grandmother who lived in a boxcar during the Depression and a father who worked a blue-collar job at a mill, supporting Merkley’s family in the Portland neighborhood where he still lives.

“Because I live in a blue-collar community today, the same community, I can really bring, I think, a pretty authentic voice to the challenges of blue-collar America,” he said. “We’re failing working America.”