Why Lesser-Known Democrats Think They Have a Shot in 2020

Why Lesser-Known Democrats Think They Have a Shot in 2020

(Left to right) John Delaney, Tim Ryan, Tulsi Gabbard, Eric Garcetti, Eric Swalwell, Seth Moulton

SourceCreative Commons

Why you should care

Because the Democrats could have a historically large crop of candidates.

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The plan, as described over a taco salad at a Capitol Hill lunch spot, is a little nuts. A third-term Democratic congressman from Maryland readily acknowledges that “no one knows who I am.” So over the next two-plus years he’s going to dish out his bipartisan problem-solving pitch at 400 events in Iowa and New Hampshire. By then, he’ll have an organizational head start, and, given this wacky era in American politics, who are we to tell John Delaney he can’t be president?

Delaney is the first declared Democratic candidate for 2020, but why-not-me-ism abounds as Democrats could end up surpassing the 17 major Republican presidential candidates in 2016. (Who’s ready for more two-tiered primary debates?) In the early mix are national brand names including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren; senators like Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris; governors like Andrew Cuomo and Terry McAuliffe; and political outsiders like Howard Schultz and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.

This cycle is breeding a new group of people who might have never considered running for president before.

Adrienne Elrod, Democratic operative

And then there are the fresh-faced politicians who have never won a statewide race but are turning up in early presidential primary states: Delaney, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Keep in mind the only president to have been elected from the House was James Garfield in 1880. A mayor has never pulled it off.

But Donald Trump shattered all kinds of notions about the proper background for a president. So too did first-term senator Barack Obama’s 2008 triumph over the experienced front-runner Hillary Clinton. “Maybe it is the combination of Obama and Trump — two presidents in a row with little or no high-level political experience,” says Larry Sabato, the head of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “The older ones remember Jimmy Carter in 1976,” Sabato adds. “It was a very large field, and ‘Jimmy Who?’ beat loads of well-known candidates.”

For Democrats, 2020 presents a rare race without an obvious front-runner. Biden, Sanders and Warren lead early polls based mostly on name identification. The little-known new contenders find themselves energized by the Trump era and believe they can offer a different direction than party leaders who steered Democrats into devastating losses. Ryan, 44, has long represented a Rust Belt congressional district full of the kind of white working-class Trump voters who swung the election. Garcetti, 46, has Jewish and Latino heritage and hiked Los Angeles’ minimum wage to $15 per hour. Moulton, 38, is a decorated Marine veteran who served four tours in Iraq. In a recent podcast with former Obama aide David Axelrod, Moulton noted he’s “a hell of a lot more prepared [for the White House] than the current occupant.”

Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic operative who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, says the party should welcome any and all aspirants to run. “I do think this cycle is already, frankly, breeding sort of a new group of people who might have never considered running for president before,” Elrod says. “You are seeing so many people who are extremely fearful of Donald Trump and what, God forbid, a second term of Donald Trump might accomplish.”

But there’s a reason no mayors and just one congressman have made the leap: They represent relatively narrow constituencies. Los Angeles has little in common with Iowa. Yet big-city mayors must “learn how to govern and work across the aisle,” Elrod says. “You can’t afford to let partisan politics get in the way.” And a presidential run is a huge leap for just about anyone — whether a governor, a mayor or a reality TV star. Los Angeles, by the way, has more people than 23 states.

Delaney says senators crowd into presidential fields more than House members because they often are not running for reelection, while House members are always on the ballot. (Among the gaggle of Senate Democrats kicking the tires in early primary states, New Jersey’s Booker and Oregon’s Jeff Merkley are up for re-election in 2020.)

Delaney, 54, is not running for re-election, giving him the freedom to roam Iowa and New Hampshire as he pleases. He’s touting a ranking as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress, representing a swing district that includes both Washington suburbs and rural, mountainous western Maryland. A co-founder of a commercial lending firm who ranks as one of the wealthiest members of Congress, Delaney expects an eventual cooling of the anti-Trump resistance frenzy. By 2019, perhaps, primary voters will be drawn to Delaney’s message of civility and wonkery about adapting to the artificial intelligence economy. “I wouldn’t want to have the election today,” he says. “Let’s put it that way.”

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