The 2018 elections are in the books, and the 2020 election campaign begins very shortly. With dozens of Democrats interested, some have said they will make a decision by year’s end. That’s just a few weeks away.
What did the 2018 elections mean for 2020? It’s difficult to say. Had Democrats notched a more resounding success — with fewer Senate losses — the clear verdict would have been to stay the course and maybe go with a more traditional nominee. Those unhelpful losses, though, are likely to leave uncertainty about exactly what the party needs at the top of the ticket in 2020. If Democrats are still struggling to win Florida even in a good environment, for example, maybe that’s cause for concern.
So who leads the way? As I do every few months, here’s my latest list of the top 15 contenders.
Off the previous list: Eric Holder, Oprah Winfrey, Chris Murphy, Mitch Landrieu, Andrew M. Cuomo
Honorable mentions: Steve Bullock, Jason Kander, Pete Buttigieg, Eric Garcetti, Julián Castro, Tim Ryan, Tom Steyer, John Hickenlooper, Jeff Merkley, Seth Moulton, Martin O’Malley, Eric Swalwell, Jay Inslee, Howard Schultz
15. Rep. John Delaney (Md.): Points here for getting in early. The retiring Maryland congressman and presidential long-shot is a declared candidate and has been hitting Iowa hard for months (adopting the Chris Dodd/Rick Santorum model). He’s running as something of a pro-business New Democrat, which seems anathema to where the party is right now. But if there are a ton of candidates, notching a respectable finish in Iowa won’t require a huge chunk of votes.
14. Michael Avenatti: I know what you’re thinking, and I don’t blame you. Four months ago, I would have judged myself for putting Avenatti on this list — hard. I also don’t think he did himself any favors with his role in the Brett M. Kavanaugh confirmation process. But Democrats are starting to warm to his brash, in-your-face style, and some, like Hillary Clinton and Eric Holder, are even newly embracing a version of it themselves. Former attorney general Holder’s “When they go low, we kick ‘em” comment last month notably came months after Avenatti said, “When they go low, we hit harder.” And if Democrats take a flier like Republicans did in 2016, who knows?
13. Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick: Patrick admitted a couple months ago that he’s not sure he sees a place for himself in the 2020 race. I still think he would be formidable if he did run — especially given the enthusiasm among some Obama types.
12. Hillary Clinton: In an interview a few weeks ago, Clinton began talking about how qualified she felt to be our next president. It may have been wistfulness more than anything signaling real intent — and she also said, “No, no,” when asked whether she wants to run again. But it’s difficult not to believe she wasn’t at least planting a seed of doubt and sending a signal to other would-be candidates that she reserves the right — even if it’s unlikely — to jump in.
11. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.): The Minnesota senator’s 24-point reelection win on Tuesday was never in doubt, but it was emphatic. And notably, she did well in the rural areas along the Iron Range and in Southern Minnesota that Democrats are struggling to hold in the Trump era. If Democrats want a pragmatic, smart pick, she’s making a case for it. She’s not the liberal fire-breather some want, though.
9. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg: Bloomberg plugged a huge amount of money into the 2018 election for Democrats — $110 million, all told, according to his team. But after so many head-fakes about running for president, does he actually do it this time? The fact that the former Republican and independent recently registered as a Democrat — after not bothering to do so in recent years — would seem a potential clue.
8. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Tex.): He lost to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). It didn’t work out. The $70 million he raised couldn’t overcome Texas’s quarter-century without electing a Democrat statewide. But it was close — only a three-point gap. If you’d have offered that at the start of the race, I would have said it was very impressive. He would have been higher on this list if he had won, but he has earned a ticket to ride in a Democratic Party badly in need of young stars.
7. Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio): Nobody who was running for reelection on Tuesday leaned as hard into the next campaign as Brown. In a brief victory speech, he noted that he won even as Trump had carried Ohio by eight points in 2016. “That is the message coming out of Ohio in 2018, and that is the blueprint for our nation in 2020,” he concluded. That’s notable from a guy who said before that he wasn’t actively considering a run. Perhaps ensuring reelection just had to come first.
6. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.): Gillibrand said during a debate for her (uncompetitive) reelection bid that she would serve out her six-year term if she won. But then she seemed to reopen the door to a run just two days after the election on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
5. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.): Booker can be hugely impressive; he can also be over the top. And his performances during the Kavanaugh hearings trended toward the latter. A tip: It’s not an “I am Spartacus” moment if you have to call it an “I am Spartacus moment.” Not to focus too much on one moment, but this was a big and unforgettable one.
4. Former vice president Joe Biden: A recent CNN poll made Biden the big, early favorite for the Democratic nomination — 33 percent to 13 percent for Bernie Sanders — which is a bit surprising. Lots and lots of Democrats voted for Sanders in 2016, after all. I’m not convinced that Biden jumps in, and his track record as a presidential candidate isn’t good. But the stage is set.
3. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.): Perhaps nobody on this list has Harris’s upside -- if she puts it all together -- and that upside is worth a lot in what’s almost undoubtedly going to be such a crowded field.
2. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.): Sanders ran a somewhat sleepy reelection race (which was all that was required), and I keep half-expecting him to assert himself as a national leader of the Democrats — kind of how he attempted to during that tour with DNC Chairman Tom Perez. Maybe he recognizes that he doesn’t need all that, and he can just turn his base on the moment he starts running again. We’ll see.
1. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.): No, Warren’s disclosure of a DNA report showing very slight Native American ancestry didn’t exactly go swimmingly. But as a signal of her intent to run, it was as strong as anything. I’ve often felt that if she runs, she’s probably the favorite. She needed to get this out of the way, and she’s trying.