Rep. Eric Swalwell received a text message over the weekend from a friend urging him to remain focused on his congressional career even as he considers higher office. “Do not give up your House seat, even if you decide to run for president,” the friend wrote.
“Thank you. If I run for president, it’s because I’m going to become president,” the California Democrat replied.
Swalwell, a fourth-term member of the House, is pondering an up-or-out strategy. With a decision looming in the next couple months, Swalwell said that he has no intention of trying to keep his seat in Congress if he runs for president.
Swalwell said he would finish out his term in the House, particularly focusing on his work in the Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation, but he that would not seek reelection and run for the White House at the same time.
His thinking demonstrates how tricky it can be to seek the presidency while serving in the House, something no one has been successful at in nearly 140 years, when James Garfield in 1880 went straight from the House to the Oval Office.
It’s hard enough just to get the attention and profile necessary to be seriously considered, but the House’s two-year terms create a crunch for those lawmakers considering running for president. They have to consider their home-state laws and whether they are allowed to be in primaries for both offices.
Yet this year, as the 2020 race begins, could produce the largest crop of House members running for the highest office in the land in recent memory.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) has already begun her campaign, while Swalwell and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) have taken steps toward a bid. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) has had his name floated. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) is headed to New Hampshire next month. Former congressman John Delaney (D-Md.) launched his campaign in 2017 while still in office, and Beto O’Rourke (D), who gave up his House seat to run for and narrowly lose a Senate race last year, was last seen driving around America talking to voters as he ponders his decision about 2020.
Increasingly, House members view their perches as just as powerful as their longtime overlords in the Senate — this era of social media and 24/7 cable news has democratized the environment by which a presidential candidate can get attention.
“You see it with the ability for someone to communicate in a way that spreads like wildfire. I’ve had speeches go, 13 million people have seen them,” Ryan said, referencing a speech he delivered after GM announced plant closings across the country, including one in his eastern Ohio district. “You had to be a senator to have stature to get attention to get on ‘Meet the Press’ in 1956. Now, I think a House member — if you’re entertaining and you’re worthy — I think your name ID can go up relatively quickly.”
Ryan recently huddled over breakfast at a Capitol Hill restaurant with Richard Gephardt, who is mostly known as the House Democratic leader from 1995 to 2003.
But Gephardt (D-Mo.) first gained fame through his 1988 presidential campaign as a backbencher from the House, announcing in early 1987 and running on a populist message that resonated with union workers across the country.
Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses in 1988, winning South Dakota soon after. But on Super Tuesday, he got swamped and later bowed out. Still, the following year, Democrats faced an ethically challenged leadership team and vaulted Gephardt from a junior post to House majority leader and eventually minority leader after the 1994 midterms.
Ryan has worked with Gephardt, now a high-powered lobbyist in Washington, on energy and technology issues, the focus of their breakfast. But, Ryan acknowledged, 2020 was discussed.
“Of course the topic came up,” he said.
Ryan is studying Ohio election law and believes he will be able to run for both president and his House seat in the March 2020 primary, assuming he enters and still remains in the presidential contest by then.
Senators rarely have to face this issue with their six-year terms, able to time presidential bids that fit their career. For instance, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) both won new Senate terms in November and launched 2020 bids in recent weeks. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who kicked off her candidacy Monday, won her first term in 2016 and will not have to face voters until 2022 if she does not win the presidency.
Swalwell has no interest in a Gephardt-like rise in House ranks based on a polished but unsuccessful 2020 campaign.
“I’m not hedging; I don’t want to be perceived as hedging and trying to play up something else. I think you have to firmly have both feet in one lane,” he said.
For every Dick Gephardt, however, there are the examples of Robert Dornan (R-Calif.) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
Dornan, a fiery conservative and former Air Force pilot who relished his “B-1 Bob” nickname, gained attention as a fierce critic of President Clinton in the 1996 campaign. However, after failing to win any caucus or primary states, Dornan went on to lose his House seat in a general election, a race that signaled the shifting politics and demographics of Orange County.
Bachmann surged to the front of the pack in summer 2011 for the GOP presidential primary, only to fade and withdraw from the race in early January 2012 after a poor showing in Iowa.
She barely won reelection that fall, found herself in an ethics investigation for her presidential campaign spending and retired from Congress at the end of 2014.
Gabbard, who declined an interview request for this story, has already alienated some Hawaii Democrats with her national ambition. Within days of her announcement, a state senator announced a primary challenge for her House seat.
And the Star Advertiser, her Honolulu newspaper, wrote a scathing editorial against her national ambition, with a headline telling her to “focus on her job” in the House.
Swalwell, who has staff in Iowa and is hiring in New Hampshire and South Carolina, said that today’s Democratic voters will see through a presidential candidate just trying to get attention for other ambitions.
“If it seems like you’re trying to sell a book, trying to get a TV show, trying to run for something else, I think people see through that,” he said.