The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Talk of Oprah running for president captivates Democrats

Oprah Winfrey delivered a rallying cry to women and hope for "a new day" when receiving the Cecile B. DeMille Award at the 2018 Golden Globes. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post, Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBCuniversal Via Getty Images/The Washington Post)

From Hollywood to Iowa, a sudden wave of enthusiasm for Oprah Winfrey as a potential presidential candidate swept through the Democratic Party on Monday, beginning as a social-media sensation after her rousing remarks at Sunday night's Golden Globes ceremony and escalating nationally as party officials and activists earnestly considered the possibility.

The calls for Winfrey, a cultural icon and friend of former president Barack Obama's, to look hard at entering the 2020 race against President Trump revealed a longing among Democrats for a global celebrity of their own who could emerge as their standard-bearer and his foil.

The clamor also exposed how the crowded class of Democrats mulling over bids for the White House so far lacks a front-runner or someone who could easily unite the party's key coalitions of women, minorities and working-class voters.

Billionaire philanthropist Oprah Winfrey may be flirting with a 2020 presidential run. (Video: Victoria Walker, Julio Negron/The Washington Post)

"Lord, we need passion and excitement," said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a prominent Demo­crat in South Carolina, one of the early-voting states in the race for the nomination. "I know it's conjecture right now, but I'd ask her to give it serious consideration. If anybody could bring us together, it's her."

Winfrey's inner circle did little Monday to tamp down the frenzy. Her spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment, but several people close to Winfrey said she was keeping tabs on the news coverage and appreciated the response.

"She's overwhelmed by the groundswell of support, the absolute avalanche of hashtags and phone calls about running for president," said Richard Sher, a friend and former broadcasting partner in Baltimore who spoke with Winfrey by phone Monday.

Sher added: "If she set out to do it, she'd win. But at this point it's other people, not her, that's talking about it. She's just taking it all in and happy that what she had to say struck such a chord around the country."

Stedman Graham, Winfrey's longtime partner who joined her at the Globes ceremony, whipped up speculation Sunday evening when he told a Los Angeles Times reporter that "it's up to the people" and said Winfrey "would absolutely do it," although he did not specify what she would do.

There were no signs, however, that Winfrey has done anything to formally prepare for a 2020 campaign or has spoken with Democratic operatives. Instead, her speech at the Globes, where she received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, was widely seen by Democrats as a visceral moment on the national stage that catapulted her into the discussion, regardless of whether she wanted to be part of it or eventually inches closer to running.

That view was felt not only among Democrats watching the Golden Globes and cheering her on social media but among Hollywood players who immediately latched onto Winfrey's speech, putting her in the position of being courted by grass-roots Democrats and Academy Award winners.

Winfrey, tracing her path from her Midwestern roots to the pinnacle of the American media, drew ovations Sunday for her message of hope amid despair, generating praise from those working to counter sexual misconduct as well as, notably, from Democrats troubled by the Trump presidency. A speech without overt political notes became a political rallying cry in an instant.

Winfrey spoke with an impassioned voice of a "culture broken by brutally powerful men" and how "for too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up."

Later, she added, "I've interviewed and portrayed people who've withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights."

The 2020 calls came fast and fervently.

"She launched a rocket tonight. I want her to run for president," actress Meryl Streep told The Washington Post on Sunday. "I don't think she had any intention [of declaring]. But now she doesn't have a choice."

Talk of Winfrey rippled through Iowa, whose caucuses are traditionally the first contest in the battle for the party's nomination and have a history of thrusting unconventional candidates forward.

"I can guarantee county chairs in Iowa would love to have a conversation with her," said Brad Anderson, who ran Obama's reelection campaign in the state in 2012. "People could be looking for an outsider who could heal the country, and if that's the case, I have no doubt that Oprah would be powerful."

Liz Purdy, who led Democrat Hillary Clinton's presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire in 2008, said as long as Winfrey "ran the New Hampshire way and went to Main Street after Main Street," she could have a path to victory in the state. "If anyone could do retail politics right, it'd be her."

While the draft-Oprah buzz struck some Democrats as a red-carpet-turned-Twitter boomlet that could quickly fade, few veteran strategists were ready to ignore the talk about her among rank-and-file Democrats, especially after Trump, who is less popular than Winfrey in polls, was able to mount an insurgent, reality-television-style campaign and win the White House.

There were also questions about whether Winfrey, 63, a self-made billionaire whose groundbreaking broadcast and media career has made her an admired figure around the world, would ever be willing to take the plunge and enter a presidential race that could be polarizing and force her to tangle daily with a combative president.

"I have no doubt that she's filled with a desire to make the greatest possible impact in the world," said former Obama adviser David Axelrod, who heads the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics. "But whether she would want to submit herself and her brand to this process is a real question. Running for president is relentless, all-involving, sometimes degrading and often annoying."

Robert Shrum, who has worked on Democratic presidential campaigns for decades and teaches at the University of Southern California, said "media fascination," more than any particular opening in the field, was driving the interest. He said it did not necessarily mean voters would rush to abandon the current and former officials mentioned as 2020 contenders, such as former vice president Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

"There could be a backlash to Trump and people look for experience," Shrum said. "She'd have to show that she could formulate an economic message, assemble a top campaign organization."

In the past, Winfrey has said experience in elected office should not be a prerequisite for a role on the national stage.

"I challenge you to see through those people who try to convince you that experience with politics as usual is more valuable than wisdom won from years of serving people outside the walls of Washington, D.C.," she told a crowd in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in December 2007 while stumping for Obama.

Asked on Bloomberg Television last year about running for president, Winfrey said that she "never considered the question even a possibility," but Trump's election prompted her to reconsider.

"I thought, 'Oh, gee, I don't have the experience, I don't know enough,' " Winfrey said. "And now I'm thinking, 'Oh.' "

The crop of expected 2020 hopefuls, such as Gillibrand, reacted warmly to Winfrey on Monday, seeing her not yet as a rival but as an ally in their effort to raise awareness of sexual harassment and assault, an issue that has upended the entertainment industry and prompted congressional resignations.

"Her voice is powerful and important, and whatever she wants to do, she should do," Gillibrand said in New York.

There have been many draft movements in previous election cycles that have fizzled, such as the highly publicized push in 1995 among Republicans for Colin Powell, the general who was riding a surge of popularity because of his leadership during the Gulf War. Powell declined to run, and Bill Clinton won reelection.

And, of course, Trump, a wealthy real estate tycoon who later became a reality-television impresario on NBC's "The Apprentice," had been wooed by some conservative voters going back to 1987, when he began to flirt with a White House run.

Part of Trump's unconventional political past includes Winfrey. During a 1999 push for the Reform Party nomination that never panned out, Trump said that "Oprah would always be my first choice" as running mate.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaking to reporters Monday at the Capitol, said Winfrey could be a force in presidential politics if she surrounded herself with experienced advisers.

But she did not fully embrace the idea of a Winfrey candidacy.

"I think one of the arguments for Oprah is 45," Pelosi said, referencing Trump's celebrity appeal as well as his lack of experience in elected office. "I think one of the arguments against Oprah is 45."

Trump-aligned Republicans mostly shrugged off Winfrey. Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign adviser, mocked the notion of Winfrey and other celebrities jumping in the 2020 race.

"This is going to be a crowded Democratic primary: Oprah and George Clooney and Mark Cuban and Mark Zuckerberg and Dwayne Johnson, the Rock," Miller said. "At a certain point, someone's going to have to remind the Democrats running for president that Hollywood is not an early primary state."

But some of Trump's critics on the right argued that Winfrey would immediately be a formidable candidate — and said they could support her over Trump.

"Oprah: sounder on economics than Bernie Sanders, understands Middle America better than Elizabeth Warren, less touchy-feely than Joe Biden," conservative commentator William Kristol tweeted, adding "#ImWithHer."

Philip Rucker, Erica Werner and Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.