Sparked by his narrow defeat in a Texas Senate race, Beto O’Rourke is scrambling the 2020 presidential primary field, freezing Democratic donors and potential campaign staffers in place as they await word of his plans.Even prior to O’Rourke’s meteoric rise, many Democratic fundraisers had approached the large number of 2020 contenders with apprehension, fearful of committing early to one candidate. But the prospect of a presidential bid by O’Rourke, whose charismatic Senate candidacy captured the party’s imagination, has suddenly rewired the race.
Concerns one might have had about his thin experience seem inapt in the era of Trump — and when possible competitors include freshmen senators and non-politicians with equal or less political experience. The bigger questions for O’Rourke and others revolve around whether he can win back the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest, which Democrats lost in 2016, hold onto the moderate voters in suburbs (many of whom tested the waters by voting Democratic for the first time in 2018), and withstand the pummeling Trump is going to deliver.
Taking a step back, a Democrat looking at the potential field of candidates sees a logjam of progressives senators from blue states — Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). Also on the progressive wing of the party are possible candidates such as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro and billionaire Tom Steyer. Not all will run; some will fade early. However, competition will be stiff as each tries to stand out in a crowd (maybe inevitably running further and further to the left).
The opening, if there is one, seems to be in another lane: the centrist Democrat category. If former vice president Joe Biden decides to run, he’ll be the man to beat. If he doesn’t, however, the moderate lane opens up considerably. There are a few mulling a race — Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu and Govs. Steve Bullock of Montana and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, for example — but they are less numerous and seem less determined than the pack running in the progressive lane. Perhaps this is a sign that the party’s energy is on the left. However, if Biden opts out, it’s also an opportunity for an ambitious Democrat who has some crossover appeal and an actual track record of enacting Democratic policies.
Moderate Democrats looking at the 2018 results, where Democrats gained ground in the suburbs and won back states critical to earning an electoral-college majority, are understandably nervous that the party will fail to learn the biggest lesson of 2018: Exciting progressives came close, but moderates won.
Just after the election, Jim Kessler and Lanae Erickson of the moderate group Third Way wrote, “So 2020 hopefuls beware: Medicare-for-all failed the Hippocratic Oath. It did harm. And when you face powerful forces intent on making it a litmus test in the primary, proceed with caution.” Another reason to worry if the Democrats go far left would be a centrist independent such as Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio), who may enter the race and vacuum up voters between the two extreme major-party candidates.
As noted, there is some room to run for a center-left candidate with some appeal both with progressives and moderates — e.g., Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Biden — but the lessons of 2016 should also be heeded: Get a dynamic candidate who emotionally bonds with voters; can stand up to Trump (not simply complain about him); has a vision (not a stack of white papers); and has potential to unify not only the party, but the country as a whole. Find that kind of candidate, and the ideology may become secondary.
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