Politics & Government

“Maybe we don’t need Oprah.” Early-state Dems sound off on 2020

Florida’s 2018 Senate race has barely been concluded, but in the states that traditionally kick off the presidential primary process, it might as well be 2020 already.

Prospective Democratic presidential candidates are making congratulatory calls to 2018 victors in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire—and to their staffs. They are sending out personalized thank you notes to local power brokers and attendees who showed up at their midterm political events. The hunt for operatives with strong early-state connections is underway.

As the attention in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary and caucus states shifts to the coming 2020 campaign, here’s how the 2018 cycle sets up the next one, according to more than a dozen top Democratic operatives from Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

1. Booker and Harris generating attention with smart tactical moves.

Certainly, lots of people are probing their national prospects. Maryland Rep. John Delaney, who has already announced for president, has visited all of Iowa’s 99 counties. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and her team got in touch early with candidates in places such as Nevada and Iowa, and former Vice President Joe Biden, who often hit the campaign trail this midterm cycle, has a long-standing national network. There is also plenty of buzz about Beto O’Rourke, who came close to unseating Texas Sen. Ted Cruz this year.

But when it comes to sheer star power on the ground, Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey have activists glowing about their trips to several of the early states.

“Kamala Harris was one of the biggest responses we’ve ever had,” said Sean Bagniewski, the chair of the Democratic Party in Iowa’s Polk County. Harris spoke at a gathering there last month and did a series of events for Iowa Democratic candidates. “We had a couple days to put it together and 400 people were there. A lot of people were saying they hadn’t felt anything like that since the last presidential election.”

Harris has stayed in touch with many of the candidates she endorsed in 2018, including some from the early states, and she also made post-Election Day calls to staffers on some of the campaigns she supported, thanking them for their work.

Booker, meanwhile, has also had an aggressive presence in the early states, combining public campaign appearances with quieter retail politicking efforts that have impressed senior operatives.

“From a wattage standpoint, both Sen. Booker and Sen. Harris had excellent first trips to the state that gathered a lot of attention,” said a veteran Democratic Iowa operative who talks with many potential candidates, granted anonymity to assess them freely.

Booker and his team, which includes chief of staff Matt Klapper, have been reaching out for conversations with potential staffers in early states ahead of a possible presidential bid.

And after an Iowa appearance, Booker’s team found photos from the event that attendees had posted on Facebook. Booker signed and mailed back at least 150 of those pictures, as well as personal thank you notes, to Iowa activists.

“That is just genius staff work,” said the longtime Iowa operative, who is unaligned and praised Booker, Harris, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Delaney. “To have the entrepreneurial approach to say, how can we get these photos, to be aware enough that people posting photos with the senator are more than likely caucus-goers anyway. I thought it was unique and showed an extra level of effort, a personal touch, which is what caucuses are all about.”

2. Democrats think they’ve found winning policy messages.

Some Democrats, exhilarated by their takeover of the House of Representatives, see their 2018 campaigns as offering a model for 2020 contenders: talk relentlessly about issues such as health care, and don’t get stuck responding to President Donald Trump’s every tweet.

“For those individuals seeking to run for president, I think they should pay close attention to the results in congressional races,” said Rep.-elect Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, pointing to issues Democrats hammered on in 2018, including protecting people with preexisting conditions and combating gun violence. Pappas said he has received supportive messages from possible contenders including Warren, Booker and Rep. Eric Swalwell of California.

Added Nevada-based Democratic strategist Andres Ramirez, “Presidential candidates are going to have to give Nevadans something to vote for and not just vote against.”

3. But a debate is raging over what kind of messenger they need.

In New Hampshire earlier this month, veteran Democratic strategist Judy Reardon took stock of the midterm results and concluded that the party needs someone whose style is more calm and conciliatory than combative counter-puncher.

“Before this election, I had been of the mind that the Democratic nominee to beat Trump had to be somebody with a big personality,” she said. “...I now think that very well might not be the case. Maybe somebody like Steve Bullock, actually, has the best chance of beating Donald Trump. Somebody who’s less flashy.

“Maybe we don’t need Oprah,” she continued.

Indeed, the Democratic Party is poised for pitched battles over both personality and ideology in their quest for someone who can defeat Trump in the general election. Does the party need a nominee with a big persona to match Trump’s brashness, or a lower-key figure who exudes stability? A progressive firebrand who thrills party activists or a centrist from the business world who can appeal to Republicans?

Some argue that the 2018 candidates who energized the base most came from the unapologetically progressive wing of the party—and reflected its diversity. Contenders such as Stacey Abrams of Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida, and O’Rourke in Texas didn’t win, the argument goes, but the competitiveness of their campaigns in challenging states demonstrates where the party is moving.

“Sometimes the theory among Democrats, particularly in the Southeast, is to go for a centrist who won’t create much of a ripple, see if you can pull over some Republicans,” said Brady Quirk-Garvan, the chair of the Charleston County Democratic Party in South Carolina. “I think the base of the Democratic Party, even here in South Carolina, is not really feeling that at the moment. They want someone who’s going to meet them at their excitement level, engage them, who in their eyes is going to lead them into battle.”

4. Bernie Sanders was the 2016 runner-up. That doesn’t mean he’ll be anointed in 2020.

The Vermont senator unquestionably maintains a following in key early states. But just because he was the liberal favorite last time doesn’t mean Sanders has locked down the progressive base going forward.

Now, progressives who watched potential candidates traipse through their states all midterm cycle expect to have additional choices, from, potentially, Warren of Massachusetts—who, like Sanders, has a geographic advantage in New Hampshire—to Harris, who some activists think could play with both progressives and more establishment types if she runs.

“The biggest impression was made by Bernie Sanders who showed that he still has a strong base in Nevada, but I think the most buzz is regarding Kamala Harris,” said Ramirez, in Nevada—a place both Sanders and Harris, among others, campaigned this cycle. “She really impressed a lot of Nevadans during her trips here. It’s still early though, and I think that other potential candidates could generate a lot of support as well.”

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown’s populist credentials and 2018 victory in an otherwise increasingly red state, meanwhile, have stoked early-state chatter in recent weeks, including in New Hampshire.

And in places such as South Carolina, some progressives are also talking about Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who has visited the state but has a lower profile than other Senate colleagues thought to be considering a run.

“There could be three or four hard progressive candidates,” said Quirk-Garvan of South Carolina. “Then a lot of it is going to be about personality.”

5. The size of the field is unnerving Dems, but could yield Trump-ready contender.

There could easily be more than two dozen Democratic candidates running for president in 2020, with even more possibilities surfacing since Election Day—and that makes some Democrats nervous.

“I look at all the names and go, ‘Oh my God.’ There’s so many people who might run. It’s overwhelming,” said Kathy Sullivan, the former chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and a Democratic National Committee member from the state.

Some Democrats are skeptical that all of those potential candidates will actually make the decision to enter the race. And certainly, many think a seriously competitive primary process is good for the party.

Reardon thought back to the GOP presidential primary process, in which close to 20 candidates ran, and Trump emerged.

“If we end up with a disastrous nominee then I’m sure we’ll all point to the fact that 20 people ran and that enabled this crazy person to win with just getting 30 percent of the vote in every state,” she said. “On the other hand, competition tends to make candidates strong and weeds out the weak.”