Voters have yet to go to the polls in the 2018 midterms, but President Trump and many of the potential contenders aiming to unseat him were already trading fire during what might be viewed as the first official weekend of the 2020 presidential campaign.
Some, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and attorney Michael Avenatti, addressed their presidential ambitions head-on. Others, such as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), fueled speculation; the vocal Trump critic is slated to make his second visit to the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire on Monday, days after he was propelled into the national spotlight by his call for an expanded FBI investigation of Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh amid sexual assault allegations.
All the while, Trump escalated his attacks on potential opponents, calling out several of them by name in a blistering speech in West Virginia on Saturday night.
The events put into focus the questions facing Democrats — and some Republicans — as the campaign begins in earnest: Should they wade into the mud and make attacking Trump a centerpiece of their efforts, or should they attempt to craft a more uplifting message of their own?
“There will be a group of folks that are tempted to try to play Trump’s game. I think that the most effective antidote to Trump will be to reclaim what it means to be a populist in a more hopeful, optimistic and aspirational way,” said Mo Elleithee, a longtime Democratic operative who is now executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.
The 2020 salvos come as this year’s midterm elections enter their frenzied final stretch and with both parties bitterly at odds over Kavanaugh, who is being investigated by the FBI after Christine Blasey Ford alleged that he sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. Both testified about the allegation at a contentious Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday.
More than two dozen Democrats are considered prospective presidential candidates, including lawmakers such as Warren, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), as well as former vice president Joe Biden, former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and entrepreneur Mark Cuban.
Biden, who has said he will decide on a 2020 run by January, delivered a searing critique of Trump’s foreign policy during a rally for Rhode Island Democrats in Providence on Sunday. He described Trump as “a president whose sole concern is expanding and holding onto power personally” and blasted Trump’s recent remark that he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had fallen “in love.”
“I’m not looking for a war. But I’m looking for some reality,” Biden said.
Warren, meanwhile, edged nearer to declaring a bid than any of the other major Democratic White House hopefuls, announcing at a Massachusetts town hall Saturday afternoon that she would “take a hard look” at running for president after the midterms.
She took on the president directly, telling the crowd that she is “worried down to my bones about what Donald Trump is doing to our democracy.”
But she also sought to align herself with the #MeToo movement and said that the gender dynamics of the Kavanaugh hearing were playing a role in her decision on whether to run.
“It’s time for women to go to Washington and fix our broken government, and that includes a woman at the top,” she said.
Trump has frequently mocked Warren as “Pocahontas” due to the controversy over whether she has Native American ancestry. He did so again Saturday night, casting the liberal Democrat and former Harvard Law School professor as reflective of a broader shift within her party.
“They have been taken so far left where Pocahontas is now considered a conservative in the Democrat Party,” Trump told the Wheeling, W.Va., crowd, adding that Democrats have “gone loco.”
Trump — who is scheduled to headline rallies this week in Tennessee, Mississippi, Minnesota and Kansas — also took aim at “crazy” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has not shut the door to a 2020 bid, and the president made what appeared to be his first campaign-trail swipe at Booker. The former Newark mayor, who will make a trip to Iowa this week, was ridiculed by Republicans weeks ago for dramatically calling for the release of documents from Kavanaugh in an episode Booker described as his “I am Spartacus” moment.
“How about Cory Booker?” Trump asked the crowd Saturday night. “Did you watch the performance? He ran Newark, New Jersey, into the ground, and now he wants to be president, right?”
He went on to mock Booker’s “Spartacus” reference and compared him unfavorably to Kirk Douglas, the legendary actor who played the rebellious warrior in the 1960 film.
“What was the moment he said he had?” Trump said of Booker, as some in the audience responded with yells of “Spartacus!” and scattered boos. “I don’t think so. I think we’d take Kirk Douglas in his prime, do we agree?”
Democrats weren’t the only ones whose aspirations were on display over the weekend. In a joint interview with Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Flake emphasized bipartisanship in explaining his call for the FBI to investigate Kavanaugh.
“I just knew that we couldn’t move forward — that I couldn’t move forward — without hitting the ‘pause’ button,” Flake said in the interview, which aired Sunday night. He described being confronted in an elevator by survivors of sexual assault on Friday and thinking, “This is tearing the country apart.”
Flake on Monday will visit New Hampshire, where he will speak at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester. During his last trip to the state, he stoked speculation when he said that he hadn’t ruled out a White House bid, sharply criticized Trump and expressed a desire to see someone run against the president in the 2020 GOP primary.
“I think that the Republicans want to be reminded what it means to be a traditional, decent Republican,” Flake said at the time.
Among the Democrats urging for a more aggressive stance against Trump is Avenatti. The ubiquitous lawyer for adult-film actress Stormy Daniels was among a half-dozen potential candidates spending part of the weekend in Austin, where the Texas Tribune held its annual policy festival. Avenatti is also representing Julie Swetnick, another woman who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.
Avenatti said he is seriously considering a presidential bid but warned that 2020 “is going to be a very, very difficult race for the Democrats.” The fact that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton — “the most qualified individual in the history of our nation” — fell short in her 2016 bid shows that Trump should not be underestimated, Avenatti said.
“I think there’s a handful of people who could potentially beat him, but they’ve got to be able to stand on a debate stage with him and go head-to-head,” he said. “They’ve got to be able to operate within the media environment that we find ourselves in. And they’ve got to be a fighter.”
Other Democrats in Austin tested out more policy-oriented messages.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who last month launched a political action committee, held court at a happy hour for Texas Democrats and talked about how he had brought both parties together to pass reforms. He was joined onstage by South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, who discussed the economic recoveries of their cities and hinted at how any national Democratic message needed to tell similar stories.
Buttigieg argued that Democrats had “allowed our conservative friends to monopolize the idea of freedom.”
“I think the right vocabulary will come from the red states, because that’s where we’re learning to persuade people,” he said. “You’re not free if you can’t change jobs because you’d lose your health care. You’re not free if you can’t sue your credit-card company that got caught ripping you off.”
After he finished, one Democrat shouted from the audience: “2020!”
Landrieu also asked audience members if they had seen the widely viewed TV footage of Flake being questioned by two sexual assault survivors, arguing that big-city mayors were used to confrontational politics and direct action.
“That’s shocking to senators,” said Landrieu. “To us? By the time you get up in the morning and get some milk from the store, you done got hit eight, nine times on something you did yesterday!”
Patrick, who has been urged to look at a 2020 run by veterans of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as well as from his own Massachusetts gubernatorial bid, said in a Q&A session that he was “not running today” but not ruling it out. In a back-and-forth with Politico’s Jake Sherman, Patrick said that his party needed to acknowledge voter anger at the political establishment and present something new.
“I may be one of the few Democrats who thinks that on the business side, the tax bill was directionally correct, but incomplete,” Patrick said. “We can’t leave the impression that we can just change out this president and go back to doing what we used to do. We have to offer a positive alternative.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is waging a surprisingly strong progressive challenge against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in deep-red Texas, drew tens of thousands in Austin on Saturday night at a rally that featured music legend Willie Nelson.
O’Rourke drew a sharp contrast between himself and Trump, but he also appeared to take a potential 2020 bid off the table when he told the Texas Tribune festival audience earlier in the day that he will not run for any office within the next six years if elected to the Senate.
To hear Trump tell it, any Democrat who wins the 2020 nomination will be a welcome challenger — as long as he or she is already a well-known figure on the national stage.
“Oh, I dream of these people every night,” he said at Saturday’s rally. “The only thing I worry about is that some total unknown that nobody ever heard of comes along.”
Weigel reported from Austin.