DES MOINES — Hours after casting his vote against confirming Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) was looking out at Iowa Democrats, quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and urging them not to give in to despair.
“I heard a president mock and laugh and jeer a survivor for telling her story,” Booker said. “I know there’s a lot of folks hurting right now. When I was walking through here, I had survivors walking up to me, telling me what the fight meant to them.”
Booker’s Iowa visit, the first by a Democrat considered a top-tier presidential candidate in 2020, was rapturously received by activists who had lost nearly every office in their state. The New Jersey senator had quietly agreed to keynote the party’s gala eight months earlier, shortly after joining the Senate Judiciary Committee; he planned to stay in the state through Tuesday, as Democrats kicked off their 30-day early-voting period.
His speech, delivered to about 1,400 Democrats at an event designed to stoke presidential speculation, dealt with the anguish over Kavanaugh’s confirmation with a digression into Booker’s personal story — a suburban kid who became an organizer and, later, mayor of Newark — and stories about his Iowa relatives, who had made friendships across racial lines, “folks coming together with their cloth to do a quilting bee.”
Booker compared the anger many were feeling about Kavanaugh’s confirmation to what he had felt watching a young man die of a gunshot wound, and then the despair he’d felt at President Trump’s inauguration.
“Hope is the act of conviction that despair can never have the last word,” he said. “We’re not defined in this state by Republicans in power; we’re defined by how we respond to them. We’re not defined by a president who mocks a hero, Dr. [Christine] Blasey Ford. We’re not defined by a president who doesn’t believe women.”
The senator, who made news by demanding the release of additional documents from Kavanaugh’s past during the hearings, did not talk much about the confirmation process itself. He put the defeat in the context of previous liberal setbacks and struggles.
“We Democrats know that change never comes from Washington. It comes to Washington,” Booker said. “One day, Strom Thurmond didn’t sit around and say, ‘It’s about time those Negro people have civil rights.’ It was about black folks and white folks coming together and demanding change.”
Booker spoke for more than 45 minutes, drawing four standing ovations — most of them as he quoted King’s speech from the 1965 voting rights march on Montgomery, Ala., turning the “How long? Not long” rhythm into a call and response.
“How long? Not long! Until we answer the president’s hate with our universal love,” Booker said. “How long until November? Not long!”
In the speech and in a gaggle with reporters afterward, Booker shied away from using the president’s name. He brushed off a question about the presidential rally in Topeka that occurred shortly before his speech in which Trump criticized his tenure as mayor of Newark.
“I have nothing personal against the president,” said Booker. “If he wants to attack me personally, he can. If he wants to attack my record, the reality is that the people of New Jersey elected me statewide, and I’m proud of the work we did. I’ll never let him pull me so low."
Booker’s hopeful tone was generally cheered in the audience, but a few female Democrats in the crowd suggested he had skipped too quickly past the anguish some were feeling. More Democrats said Booker had struck the right chords on one of the worst days of their political lives.
“It was a very good message, obviously well received,” said Tom Vilsack, the former secretary of agriculture and a two-term Iowa governor who briefly ran for president. “Anger comes and goes. This stuff can stick with you during the tough times. I, for one, don’t think anger wins elections. I think hope and opportunity wins elections.”
Democratic activists, in Iowa and elsewhere, have expressed relatively little interest in the next presidential election, focusing instead on the chance to win back control of states and Congress next month. Booker’s appearance helped the party raise tens of thousands of dollars for a coordinated campaign, one that he would travel to help launch on Monday.
But Booker, a national figure for his party since his near miss 2002 run for mayor of Newark, didn’t tamp down the impression that he was looking at a presidential bid. After the speech — and after nearly 45 minutes of handshakes and selfies with activists — Booker seemed to relish a question about how a New Jersey senator could relate to an agricultural state.
“I’ve introduced legislation to put a moratorium on corporate consolidation of farms,” Booker said. “I don’t know if I need to bring you a New Jersey tomato to show you how good our produce is."