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Contenders or pretenders: Who will emerge as the Dem nominee in 2020?

WASHINGTON – If the Democrats seeking the party’s 2020 presidential nomination were a football team, they’d be flagged for having way too many men and women on the field.

More than two dozen Democrats, along with independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, have expressed an interest in taking on President Trump, a Republican, in an election that’s still 21 months away.

One of them is New York’s junior senator, Kirsten E. Gillibrand. She launched her campaign this month and spent last weekend in Iowa, where the first convention delegates will be chosen in caucuses on Feb. 3, 2020.

What are Gillibrand’s chances? With so many candidates competing over so long a time, and voters not actually voting for another year and change, it’s impossible to say for sure.

But at this point, it appears nine candidates or potential candidates edge out the others in having the magical mix of qualities that make a presidential nominee – some combination of money and message on the campaign trail and on social media. Gillibrand is one of those nine.

What’s more, the Democratic field seems to break down into three brackets: the proud progressives, the party traditionalists and the needle-threaders, or candidates who hope to appeal to both the party’s main factions.

Gillibrand ranks as one of the three needle-threaders who, at this point, look like they have a shot at the nomination. Her shot, though, doesn't look quite as good as some of the others.

Here’s a closer look at those three brackets, with the candidates in each ranked from strongest to weakest:

Proud progressives

1. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Warren’s first campaign appearances in Iowa a few weeks ago drew the kind of crowds that Sanders attracted four years ago. They were, as Sanders might say, HUGE.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren. (Getty Images)

And that’s just one sign that the candidate that Trump derides as “Pocahontas” has more than a fighting chance at the nomination. She’s lined up some of the party’s top talent to run her campaign.

She’s got a robust online presence and a deep base of small donors across the nation. And she’s a personable candidate who makes a compelling argument that the political system is rigged against working families.

But Warren created her own greatest weakness decades ago. She believed family anecdotes that said she was part Native American – and then said so on her application for a Harvard professorship. Then last year she tried to prove it through a DNA test, which showed she probably had a small amount of Native American blood. In other words, she handed ammunition to her enemies, starting with the man in the White House.

2. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The rumpled socialist seems poised to make another run for the presidency, and his 2016 campaign alone proves that he has to be taken seriously again.

Sen. Bernie Sanders. (Zach Gibson/New York Times)

Sanders enjoys near-universal name recognition and a strong progressive base, but there are reasons to doubt whether he can recreate his magic of four years ago. For one thing, he’s let Warren get a head start and grab some the party’s top progressive campaign talent. His recent headlines – about alleged sexism and sexual harassment in his 2016 campaign – don’t play well in the #MeToo era. And perhaps most importantly, he’s approaching 80, which will likely make even some of his strongest supporters wonder if they should pursue a younger alternative.

3. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. With his wild hair, gravelly voice and pro-union politics, Brown could be just the younger Bernie Sanders that some Bernie bros no doubt long to see in the race. What’s more, he’s proven time and again that he can win in Ohio, an increasingly red state that could give Democrats a lock on the electoral college if he were to turn it blue again.

 

Sen. Sherrod Brown. (Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer)

But Brown, like Sanders, could be late to the game. And it's conceivable that he will struggle to raise money from progressive small donors, given that Warren and Sanders are far ahead of him on that score.

The party loyalists

1. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas. Not since the days of Lincoln has a losing Senate candidate captivated a political party the way O’Rourke has captivated Democrats. Fresh off his three percentage-point loss to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in November, O’Rourke instantly emerged as a serious candidate for the presidential nomination.

Beto O'Rourke. (Bloomberg photo for Sergio Flores)

Take a look at an O’Rourke speech on YouTube and you will see why. He’s easily the most charismatic candidate in the field, one who makes voters feel good in much the way a first-term Illinois senator with a funny name did in 2008. He’s also a social media superstar, goofing his way through one Instagram video after another in a way that made Democrats nationwide open their wallets for his Senate race.

O’Rourke’s downside? He’s a former three-term House member who voters might come to see as too green for the White House. And he didn’t help himself when videos from his dental visit appeared on Instagram. Yes, Beto, we want to see your policy positions and your tax returns – but not that.

2. Former Vice President Joe Biden of Delaware. Biden tops most early polls of the Democratic field, which is not surprising, given his near-universal name recognition. And kindly old Uncle Joe may just stay there, too, if Democrats are looking for a stable and grandfatherly alternative to President Trump.

Former Vice President Joseph Biden. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

But they’re probably not. Biden, like Sanders, is pushing 80, and he’s got decades worth of Senate votes and campaign gaffes that his opponents will mine for gold, plus a penchant for making ever more gaffes. Most worrisome of all for Biden, though, is the fact that some polls show Democrats looking for something new instead of the tried and true, a fact that helps explain the Beto boom.

3. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. This midwestern moderate is the Democratic Party’s best-kept secret: a proven vote-getter from an increasingly purple state and accomplished senator with a sense of humor that outstrips that of any senator Minnesota has ever seen.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar. (Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

But then again, she’s the party’s best-kept secret. She’s practically unknown nationwide, and her home state offers her few opportunities for raising the kind of money she would need for an effective national campaign. But remember the name Klobuchar, because she’d make a perfect running mate for just about any other candidate on this list: sort of a Democratic Sarah Palin with brains.

The needle-threaders

1. Sen. Kamala Harris of California. Only two years into her first Senate term, Harris may be the politician best positioned to grab the Democratic nomination.

Sen. Kamala Harris. (Washington Post photo by Melina Mara)

She’s a compelling speaker with a compelling story, and her family background – part Indian, part Jamaican – can’t hurt in a party where, according to the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of the voters are nonwhite. She’s positioned herself as a strong progressive and has built a Twitter following of more than 2 million in just two years in the Senate. And she has the biggest hidden advantage of any candidate in the race: California’s decision to move its primary from June to Super Tuesday on March 2, when her home state advantage can make a big difference.

If Harris has a downside, it’s the fact that makes her a needle-threader: She’s a former district attorney and state attorney general with a tough-on-crime record that may not play well in a party bent on criminal justice reform. But that also happens to be a weakness that could be a strength in the general election.

2. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. Booker enters the race with two strong advantages. He’s a well-known African-American candidate in a party where minorities increasingly have an edge in primary battles. And he’s been working the early primary states for years, winning friends and influencing people who can help him win delegates.

Sen. Cory Booker. (Washington Post photo by Matt McClain)

But two things could stop a Booker candidacy. For one thing, his Wall Street ties run deep and green, and they’re utterly out of sync with the party’s increasingly progressive direction. And then there’s the fact that as a public speaker, Booker has all the subtlety of a five-alarm fire. If you doubt it, Google “Cory Booker” and “I am Spartacus,” and watch the video. It’s worth it for the chuckle.

3. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Gillibrand proved in Iowa that she has the campaign chops to compete on the world’s biggest political stage. By turns passionate, emotional, funny and warm, she was, above all, relatable. She told The Buffalo News months ago that she’s a very different senator than her predecessor, Hillary Clinton, and she’s a very different candidate, too.

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Combine all that with Gillibrand’s fundraising prowess and a first-rate national staff and you have the makings of a strong campaign – except for two things. Gillibrand remains largely unknown nationwide, and while that’s fixable, her record isn’t. She morphed from a conservative in the House to a liberal in the Senate, and it’s unclear whether she can ever get past all those pesky reporters asking why and all those curious voters who just don’t understand such a radical transformation.

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