National News

Democrats Find No Map in 2018 to a Sure 2020

Posted November 10, 2018 1:10 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — For Democrats, the victories, near wins and stinging losses Tuesday have intensified a debate in the party about how to retake the White House, with moderates arguing they must find a candidate who can appeal to President Donald Trump’s supporters and historically Republican suburbanites, and progressives claiming they need someone with the raw authenticity to electrify the grassroots.

Rather than clarifying what strategy to adopt for 2020, the patchwork of outcomes has only deepened the party’s disagreements. Both wings of the party are now wielding fresh evidence from the midterm results to make their case about the best path to assemble 270 electoral votes and oust Trump from office.

At the center of the dispute is Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who has not even said he would consider a 2020 bid but whose competitive campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz galvanized Democrats nationwide.

The schism reflects the party’s long-standing internecine tensions, which flared again this year when insurgents on the left challenged establishment-aligned candidates while voicing urgent calls for change and a more confrontational approach to the president.

And it raises questions about whether Democrats can deliver a consistent message to voters and unite behind one nominee from a slate of candidates who could range from socialists to pragmatic centrists.

“We need a candidate who has the ability to mobilize the entirety of the base, people of color, millennials and also folks in the suburbs,” said Adrianne Shropshire, who runs BlackPAC, an African-American political organizing group.

Already auditioning for that role is an eclectic group of ambitious Democrats, including three senators who appear all but certain to run: Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey. All three have moved well past the point of simply weighing a candidacy, and are assembling the infrastructure for a campaign as they prepare to make final decisions.

Two potentially formidable entrants, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, acknowledged last week that they are considering campaigns. And Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana was in New York in the days after the election meeting with wealthy party donors, introducing himself as a dark horse from a red state with the ability to reach out to rural America.

Bullock is not alone in viewing rural outreach as a priority. Pragmatic Democrats hold up the party’s defeat in the Ohio governor’s race and red-state Senate races — and a handful of closer-than-expected Senate victories in the Midwest — to argue that Democrats must get serious about devising a message that can appeal to rural, largely white voters.

They point as well to the middle-of-the-road ideology of many of the Democrats who prevailed in difficult congressional races. While numerous young people, women and minority candidates were elected to the House, few advocated far-left policy ideas.

“People need to realize my problem wasn’t getting Democrats to vote for me,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, who was defeated Tuesday in Missouri. “I hope that no one thinks that because some of the red-state Democrat moderates lost that means we have to nominate a progressive.”

The more sensible answer, McCaskill said, would be to find Trump’s political and stylistic opposite, perhaps “even a boring candidate.” She mentioned a handful of little-known senators and governors who exude vanilla.

But liberals in the party point to the performance of O’Rourke, who eschewed the traditional rules for running as a Texas Democrat and campaigned as a freewheeling, unapologetic progressive. Having raised more than $69 million and come within 3 points of defeating Cruz, O’Rourke and some of his top advisers called allies last week, feeling them out about what he should do next. In Georgia and Florida, where votes are still being counted, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum ran even stronger than O’Rourke by presenting themselves as progressives in their campaigns. By being true to themselves and offering an inspiring message, liberal activists say, these candidates proved it’s possible to run competitively in forbidding states.

“The way Democrats win is to run for every seat unashamed, to leave it all on the field and to show up every time,” said Gina Hinojosa, a Texas state legislator, arguing that O’Rourke’s approach must become “the new normal.” O’Rourke would be the party’s best nominee because he offers “the sort of authentic voice that people are so thirsty for,” Hinojosa said.

But while O’Rourke has quickly become a beloved figure among many grassroots activists, some elders in the party argue that Democrats should be careful about swooning too soon.

“We’re always looking for rock stars but I don’t think the country is looking for rock stars,” said Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa and agriculture secretary for President Barack Obama.

Asked specifically about O’Rourke, Vilsack suggested it would be odd to nominate a candidate who was just defeated. “It’s probably a good idea to win the first race you were interested in,” he said, adding, tongue-in-cheek, “Maybe he’s the new Abe Lincoln, you lose a race and then run for president and win.”

There is broad agreement among Democrats that the most encouraging election returns came from a handful of rust belt states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — three states vital to Trump’s Electoral College victory in 2016 and where Democrats won Senate and governors’ races Tuesday — as well as Minnesota, where Trump nearly pulled off a fourth blue-state upset over Hillary Clinton.

If those states continue to tilt back toward Democrats, Trump would have only a narrow path to 270 electoral votes.

But in an ominous result for Democrats, two swing states — Iowa and Ohio — appeared to move decisively away from them, and Florida, the country’s largest swing state and another state Trump won in 2016, remained agonizingly elusive. Should those three states tilt toward Trump in 2020, it would leave Democrats squeezed across the rest of the map.

“To win the upper Midwest and Florida we have to do two things Obama was able to do: get exceptionally strong African-American turnout and also get a higher proportion of noncollege whites,” said Robby Mook, who ran Clinton’s campaign, adding that Obama’s success was a reminder that there doesn’t have to be an either-or solution to the party’s goal of defeating Trump.

“Barack Obama was not an old white guy but he checked these boxes,” Mook said. Because of the mélange of results Tuesday, there was little to deter ambitious Democrats from moving ahead with preparations for 2020, most of them eyeing early announcements to avoid letting any competitors catch fire.

Harris, the senator from California, is seen by allies as likely to announce a campaign early next year, after the release of a book in January. Her sister, Maya Harris, a former top adviser to Clinton, has already been quietly gauging the intentions of some influential Democrats in order to have an early roster of supporters ready.

The Harris camp has also been reaching out to potential campaign staff members who could manage fundraising operations and a strategy for amassing convention delegates over a long primary while the senator herself has been courting Democrats in the states that begin the nominating process, such as Vilsack and former Gov. James Hodge of South Carolina.

Allies of Booker, the senator from New Jersey, spent the week highlighting his efforts to help candidates in states crucial to the presidential nominating process, while he began considering staffing decisions.

Multiple Democrats said that Addisu Demissie, who just ran the campaign of Gavin Newsom, the governor-elect of California, could potentially serve as a top official in either Booker’s campaign or a super PAC that allies of the senator may launch.

Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, is moving just as swiftly. Among scores of congratulatory phone calls she placed last week, Warren spoke with a list of influential Democrats in early presidential primary states. They included Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne, two newly elected members of Congress from Iowa, as well as Molly Kelly, the Democrat who lost a race for governor of New Hampshire.

Warren also called Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader who remains Nevada’s most influential Democrat, to congratulate him on the party’s clean sweep there, people familiar with the phone call said.

And in a sign that Warren’s deliberations have proceeded to an advanced stage, one of her closest and longest-serving aides, Dan Geldon, has left his position as her chief of staff in the Senate to manage the operation that is planning her likely campaign, which may get underway as soon as next month.

Perhaps the two best-known figures in the 2020 field, Joe Biden, the former vice president, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, have indicated they are still deciding whether to run. Biden has consistently said he would make up his mind by the end of the year, though some supporters fear that deadline could slip.

Biden’s advisers see him as a natural fit for a presidential race that hinges on Midwestern swing states where he has long been popular. But Biden, 75, has also stressed that he is concerned about the impact of a campaign on his family, and his close associates have privately acknowledged that the midterm campaign was intensely taxing for him. He called one victorious candidate last week, who said he was eager to know Biden’s own plans — but the former vice president did not sound overly enthused, responding that he was in no rush to have that discussion, according to a Democrat briefed on the conversation.

His generational peer, Sanders, faces some similar considerations, and has said that he is most preoccupied with assessing whether he is the best candidate to win back the Midwest. Many of the candidates he and his progressive allies had supported lost Tuesday.

With few exceptions, the major contenders largely overlap in their stated policy views but differ in revealing ways in their political priorities and rhetorical framing: Warren campaigns chiefly as an opponent of corporate power and her signature proposal so far is a sweeping anti-corruption bill. Harris has offered an ambitious tax bill, and presents herself as a champion of racial justice and social inclusion.

Several underdog candidates have claimed signature issues, like dark money in politics for Bullock.

There is near-unanimity across the field on matters like expanding government-backed health care and campaign finance regulation — and opposition to every major component of Trump’s agenda.

For many in the party, though, the question at hand is not whether to veer toward Sanders-style liberalism or pivot back to careful moderation — it’s how to find a nominee, of whatever ideological bearing, who can tangle with a ruthless adversary like Trump.

Todd Rutherford, a Democratic state legislator in South Carolina, said the party needed a candidate “who understands battling Trump.”

“It’s not about who has the best policy or the best story,” Rutherford said. “It’s about who can sell the best story.”