Snapshots of Dems' 2020 Field as Sanders Enters the Fray

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Sen. Bernie Sanders is officially running for president – and the surprisingly strong challenger to Hillary Clinton two years ago already finds himself with plenty of company.

“We began the political revolution in the 2016 campaign, and now it is time to move that revolution forward,” the self-described democratic socialist said in a Tuesday interview with Vermont Public Radio.

Unless Sanders moves swiftly to retake the far-left lane he carved out in his previous bid for the Democratic nomination, his second go-round could be upstaged. The independent senator from Vermont must compete for progressive votes in a rapidly expanding contest.

The Democratic National Committee has announced two inaugural presidential debates of the 2020 campaign season. The first will be in June and the second in July. Both will be two-day affairs, which apparently will be necessary to host as many as 20 hopefuls.

Sanders may have trouble keeping track of the competition on that debate stage. Ahead of that time, some candidates will jostle for control of narrow ideological turf, while others will cultivate crossover appeal. Although none of the declared candidates can match Sanders’ profile, with 349 days until the Iowa caucuses, overall themes and individual characteristics have started to emerge.

“We begin with the premise that this crop of candidates is further to the left than we’ve seen in quite a while,” says Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic aide who worked in the Senate offices of then-Majority Leader Harry Reid and the late Edward Kennedy. Maybe a couple of the candidates wouldn’t call themselves progressive, Manley tells RealClearPolitics, but as a whole the field “is much more liberal than years past.”

And while individual candidates are still developing identities, longtime Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says that “a consensus platform has emerged.”

Every candidate favors abortion rights. Most support legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana. All have embraced same-sex-marriage—a position that would have been problematic only a decade ago. The same dynamic holds true for other issues.

When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unveiled her much-abused Green New Deal, for instance, those in her party with presidential ambitions rushed to endorse the ideas of the upstart millennial congresswoman. Sherrod Brown, who has not yet formally declared, was the only Senate Democrat to hold back.

Nonetheless, the average voter may not discern much ideological daylight between the contenders. This won’t be a problem, says Stefanie Brown James, who directed African-American voter outreach for President Obama in 2012. Ideology won’t matter as much to an electorate more concerned with finding the candidate “who can beat Trump,” she asserts.

The biggest, most-watched potential Trump buster not in the race is Joe Biden. The former vice president inspires a curious sense of awe for a candidate who was quickly vanquished in two previous presidential campaigns. But he has blue-collar credibility, name recognition, and the magnetism of a seasoned pol. If the former vice president and senator mounts a third attempt, he may well upend the entire playing field and possibly stymie a second Sanders revolution.

When deciding whom to pull the lever for, voters might care more about raw political power than nuanced ideology. But lanes matter all the same, says veteran Democratic media consultant Dane Strother. “Every political campaign,” he said, needs a narrative arc, “a series of chapters that create a novel.”

Below, then, are short novellas of the declared competitors Sanders will confront:  still-developing snapshots stitched together from conversations with consultants, strategists, and national political activists. (Omitted is former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, a long shot candidate who has gained little notice or traction despite declaring his intentions 17 months ago.)

Sen. Cory Booker: Progressive Lite

Booker spit fire during the contentious confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. At one point, the New Jersey Democrat famously compared himself to Spartacus when he claimed to have deliberately violated rules in releasing protected information about the nominee. (This claim proved to be false, as he knew the material had been declassified.)

A more soft-spoken senator made his debut in Iowa a month later, delivering a unity message. According to one strategist who describes Booker as the best orator in the Democrats’ field, the soaring  rhetoric on display then was a reminder that he can still be inspirational,  “the Joel Osteen of politics.”

Another operative points to “some of the more centrist positions” Booker took in the past, such as his support for school vouchers. This could cost him backing from teacher unions, a powerful voting bloc in Democratic primaries.

Booker’s natural rival may be Sen. Kamala Harris. His Judiciary Committee colleague from California also has strong appeal with African-American voters and she carved out a similar national profile during the Kavanaugh hearings.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Generational Midwesterner

During his short-lived campaign for Democratic National Committee chairman after the 2016 elections, Buttigieg attracted the attention of Obama political guru David Axelrod, who called him “one of the most talented young leaders in the Democratic Party.”

The Midwestern millennial is mayor of South Bend, Ind., a veteran of the Afghanistan War and openly gay.

“There's a new generation of voices emerging in our country, walking away from the politics of the past and ready to deliver on our priorities,” Buttigieg said in his announcement. "We are ready for a fresh start.”

Some operatives and strategists expressed interest because of his age and red-state roots. Millennials could make up as much as 37 percent of the 2020 electorate, they note, and Democrats desperately need to win back the Midwest.

Others don’t see a lane for an obscure mayor, however. One dismissed Buttigieg altogether as a candidate “tilting at windmills,” but he can be expected to compete with Midwesterners and with other young candidates.

Julián Castro: Establishment Latino

Castro has executive experience, as the former mayor of San Antonio, and administrative chops, as the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama.

The Texan hails from the party establishment as a former member of the Cabinet of the last nationally elected Democrat. He also makes a generational pitch.

"When my grandmother got here almost a hundred years ago, I'm sure she never could have imagined that just two generations later, one of her grandsons would be serving as a member of the United States Congress and the other would be standing with you here today to say these words: I am a candidate for president of the United States of America," Castro said in his January announcement.

Some have called Castro “a rising star.” Most observers interviewed didn’t have much of an opinion, though. One dismissed him altogether “as a wannabe progressive.”

On the “rising star” side of the ledger is this: America has never elected a Hispanic president and if Castro rose into the first tier of candidates, it’s likely he would energize Latino voters and put a state in play that Democrats haven’t carried since 1976.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard: Progressive Maverick

Gabbard has placed herself squarely in the progressive lane—even when doing so came at a price: The Hawaii Democrat resigned as vice chair of the DNC to endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders for president in 2016.

She has positioned her campaign to be about liberal values and public service. Before coming to Congress, Gabbard was deployed to both Iraq and Kuwait as a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard.

“I will bring this soldier's principles to the White House, restoring the values of dignity, honor and respect to the presidency and, above all else, love for our people and love for our country," Gabbard said during her January announcement. "I ask you to join me, join me in putting this spirit, this spirit of service above self, at the forefront and to stand up against the forces of greed and corruption.”

Consultants say Gabbard can back up that public service rhetoric with her record. At the same time, they balk at her campaign’s rocky rollout. She lost her campaign manager, and had to apologize for past comments critical of gay marriage.

The party establishment views her with skepticism. Haunted by the memory of 2016, one complains that Gabbard “finds ways to spit in the face of the party.” Gabbard can be expected to compete for the votes of veterans, progressives, and feminists. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: Feminist Firebrand

The New York lawmaker is famous for urging the ouster of fellow Democratic Sen. Al Franken after the former comedian was accused of serial groping of women.

The operatives interviewed by RCP say that crusade—along with her work to curb sexism on college campuses, Capitol Hill, and in the military—gives Gillibrand feminist cred in a year when that trait cannot be underestimated within the Democratic base. One summarized the Gillibrand campaign in two words: “girl power.”

The two-term senator is making an unmistakable play for that feminist lane, telling voters in her first campaign speech, “This is my space.”

“I’m going to run for president of the United States because as a young mom I am going to fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own,’’ Gillibrand said when declaring her candidacy on the glittering CBS stage of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”

Some Democrats expressed hesitancy about the evolution of Gillibrand from a conservative Democrat in the House to a progressive in the Senate. Once a blue dog Democrat who touted her support of the Second Amendment, for instance, Gillibrand now backs strict gun control measures.

The lingering question is whether voters will see her as an opportunist or a feminist hero.

Sen. Kamala Harris: Unity and Diversity Candidate

Harris made history as the first Indian-American elected to the Senate and as just the second African-American woman to serve in that body. But the personality and the policies of the former California attorney general appeal to voters across the spectrum.

“My entire career has been focused on keeping people safe. It is probably one of the things that motivates me more than anything else. And when I look at this moment in time, I know that the American people deserve to have someone who is going to fight for them,” Harris said on “Good Morning America” as she pegged her presidential announcement to Martin Luther King Day.

More than one observer struggled to place Harris in a lane, noting that the freshman senator has tried to foster a unity message, a law-and-order message, and feminist message all at once.

“There are so many overlapping tracks,” one says of Harris. “If there is such a thing as the Obama lane,” another adds, “clearly she is in it.”

Aside from missteps over her musical preferences—she said she listened to Tupac and Snoop Dogg in college, though those artists didn’t debut until well past her graduation—Harris has enjoyed an auspicious rollout that was reflected in a surge in the early polls.

One possible negative in the current environment is that Harris’s tough-on-crime record as state attorney general is a liability among some progressives. Harris has already weathered criticism for keeping the wrongfully convicted in jail and defending the death penalty.  “She is a liberal now,” one Democrat groused. “But her record has some real issues in terms of criminal justice in California.”

Harris can be expected to compete with progressives across the spectrum. She also holds natural appeal for feminists, Asian-Americas, and black voters – and some who simply believe her charisma would play well in a general election against President Trump.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar: Pragmatic Midwestern Progressive

Trump weighed in on the Minnesota Democrat's announcement by likening Klobuchar on Twitter to “a snowman(woman).” It was a dig at global warming-obsessed Democrats -- her candidacy was officially launched during a snowstorm – but it came amid several news accounts that the affable-appearing senator is notoriously difficult on her aides.

For her part, Klobuchar was undeterred, presenting herself as a unifying figure from the great American Heartland. “On an island in the middle of the mighty Mississippi, in our nation's heartland, at a time when we must heal the heart of our democracy and renew our commitment to the common good, I stand before you as the granddaughter of an iron ore miner, the daughter of a teacher and a newspaperman, the first woman elected to the United States Senate from the state of Minnesota, to announce my candidacy for president of the United States," Klobuchar told a freezing but energetic crowd earlier this month.

Some cited the snowstorm announcement as evidence of her “toughness” and highlighted her natural appeal in the battleground states of the Midwest. Despite reports of her bruising management style on Capitol Hill, Democratic observers think Klobuchar can still affect a “Minnesota nice” approach on the campaign trail that appeals to middle-America voters, especially in neighboring Iowa, site of the first 2020 caucuses.

Others aren’t impressed. “You only have one chance to make a first impression,” one said of the snowy rollout, adding that reports of staff abuse make Klobuchar look like “a dragon lady.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren: Progressive Pioneer

Until Sanders got into into the race, the Massachusetts Democrat was the progressive to beat.

It was Warren who turned the Occupy Wall Street movement into a political moment during her first run for Senate. She hasn’t strayed from that mandate, fiercely defending the banking regulations of Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she helped create.

“Today, millions and millions and millions of American families are also struggling to survive in a system that’s been rigged, rigged by the wealthy and the well-connected,” Warren said this month during her official kickoff. “We are here to say enough is enough!”

Several operatives agree that Warren will continue to be a “rock star” among progressives, especially among college-educated white women. But some wonder whether her anti-Wall Street messaging will resonate broadly, especially in African-American communities – and whether the botched explanation of her distant Cherokee ancestry has compromised her too much. Others think that Warren may have missed her moment by passing on a 2016 run – and, in the ensuing time, if she has been a victim of her own (and Bernie Sanders’) success: The broader Democratic field has embraced many of the issues that she helped pioneer.

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