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All Contents © 2019The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Nicole Duran, Senior Editor
| December 13, 2018Updated February 2019
The 2020 Democratic presidential nominating contest is attracting unprecedented interest, as it’s the first in decades to be truly wide open. Although there are more than 40 politicians, businessmen and celebrities weighing a bid, former Vice President Joe Biden is the only one for whom virtually all other candidates would step aside. And this far out, it’s impossible to know whether there’s another Barack Obama hiding in the mix, ready to catch fire and snatch the nomination from the heir apparent.
We’re ranking the top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, updating our list as hopefuls drop out and primary season lifts some and crushes others. Take a look.
Doug Jones for Senate Committee via Wikipedia
The former vice president tops most early polls of Democratic voters, but that’s as much a result of being in the public eye for nearly 45 years as it is a measure of true desire to see the 76-year-old former Delaware senator top the ticket two years from now. Biden says his decision, which will come by February, depends on whether he and his family are “ready” for another grueling campaign. But he sure sounds like a candidate, recently saying: “I’m the most qualified person in the country to be president.” Should the Pennsylvania native seek the presidency for the third time, he’d be the clear front-runner.
Many Democrats, particularly Obama loyalists and party veterans, wanted Biden to challenge former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016. He could quickly assemble a top team of consultants and advisers and lock in some of the party’s biggest donors. He’d also have access to Obama’s campaign mailing list and be able to tap the organization that their 2008 and 2012 campaigns built.
For all those reasons, we think he leads the pack at this early stage. Not too far behind Biden is another septuagenarian presidential campaign veteran.
The Vermont lawmaker’s donor and volunteer bases are fresher than Biden’s and haven’t really disbanded since his 2016 loss to Clinton. He remains popular with young voters and the liberal activists seeking to shift the Democratic Party to the left. Sanders inspired many of this year’s first-time candidates to seek office, most of whom embrace his socialist-leaning platform.
One of Sanders’ biggest strengths is that he has proven he can attract the type of voter that shunned Clinton and backed Trump: white working-class men. Overall, 12% of Sanders’ supporters defected to Trump on Election Day. They provided enough votes in key states that, had they voted Democratic or even just stayed home, Clinton would have won.
The Minnesota senator won an open seat in 2006 — a banner year for Democrats — to become the state’s first woman senator. She’s made a name for herself on Capitol Hill as a no-nonsense, pragmatic straight shooter. Her willingness to reach across the aisle, as well as her Midwestern origins, could be big assets if Democrats opt for the centrist route in 2020.
She just won a third term with 60% of the Gopher State’s vote. Many Minnesotans say that even though they are Republicans who usually vote Republican, they support Klobuchar because she is honest, competent and affable. She has a very active political action committee (PAC) and hails from a state that borders Iowa, making campaigning easier for her than most.
Now that she’s officially in the race, we move her to the No. 3 slot, underscoring how serious of a contender she will likely be. Look for this hard-working lawmaker and former prosecutor to quickly surpasses several colleagues that most other prognosticators rank higher on their lists today.
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The three-term Texas congressman from El Paso didn’t even make our initial list in August. But after his high-profile attempt to unseat GOP Sen. Ted Cruz garnered him national headlines and the adoration of Democrats across the country, the 46-year-old entered at No. 3. He continues to make headlines but hasn’t even set a deadline for deciding, while nine “major” Democrats are now formally running. Therefore, we move him to No. 4.
O’Rourke shattered fundraising records in what officially became the most expensive Senate contest ever weeks before Election Day. He raised $38 million in the third quarter, breezing past the old $22 million record ($31 million in today’s dollars) set in 2000. And he did so eschewing corporate and labor political action committee dollars.
He amassed a national donor base and list in under two years and built a loyal army of volunteers from both inside and outside the Lone Star State that would happily help march him to the Democratic nomination. Party honchos have taken note. Some, such as outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, dismiss him as the flavor of the day: “You don’t promote a loser to the top of the party,” Emanuel said of O’Rourke. Others think he’s exactly the kind of fresh face and novel campaigner the party needs. O’Rourke, who gave up his House seat to run for Senate, did lose to Cruz. But, amid record turnout, he came closer to winning a statewide race in Texas than any Democrat in a generation has.
Several of the party’s biggest donors are sold. They have been unwilling to commit to most of the names on this list, preferring to see if one really breaks away from the massive herd, but said they will fund O’Rourke if he throws his hat in the ring.
Many Democratic operatives believe the road to the White House in 2020 runs through the Midwest. They look at Clinton’s surprise losses in Michigan and Wisconsin, which historically vote Democratic in presidential elections, and her inability to win swing states such as Ohio or Pennsylvania, and believe their nominee must come from the heartland if they are to defeat Trump.
Enter Ohio’s senior senator, Sherrod Brown. The 66-year-old traditional liberal has said he’s not interested, but many believe that after easily surviving what was supposed to be a tough reelection bid, he can be talked into making a run. Brown has been in Washington since 1993, when he was a freshman House member, but it’s hard to paint the earnest, pro-labor, anti–free trade lawmaker as a swamp creature.
The $236,000 that his PAC has doled out to other Democrats this cycle can’t hurt if he changes his mind.
The 49-year-old Rhodes scholar and former Stanford football player made it official Feb. 1. Like all other serious potential contenders, he helped Democratic candidates in the lead-up. He distributed $485,000 through his PAC for the 2018 cycle — the second most of anyone on this list.
Comparisons to Obama were immediate when Booker came onto the national scene after winning his first mayoral race in 2006. Such comparisons could cut both ways in 2020, when he would also have to decide whether to seek a second term in the Senate.
California Sen. Harris was liberal Democrats’ pet politician before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez burst onto the national scene in July. However, since the 29-year-old political novice won’t be old enough to run for president in 2020, Harris is still the one atop many progressive Democrats’ wish list of presidential competitors.
A black freshman senator from a populous state captivates politicos with soaring rhetoric, and immediately talk of presidential mettle begins. Sound familiar? International betting parlors like her chances enough to put her just behind O’Rourke (who wasn’t even on those parlors’ boards initially), at 5-to-1. Biden and Sanders, tied at 10-to-1, now trail O’Rourke and Harris. But at this stage, it’s far too early to say whether Harris can break out of the pack and become an Obama-like figure, or if she’ll just be another also-ran, or almost-ran.
In office just two years, with $410,000 she heads the third-most-generous PAC and busied herself last cycle endorsing candidates up and down ballots across the country.
Harris faced her first real test of whether she’s presidential material before she officially announced. The state of California had to settle a harassment suit brought shortly before she left office against one of her top deputies when she was attorney general for $400,000. He was a California-based senior adviser to her until news of the settlement broke. Critics are accusing Harris, who said that she didn’t know about the payment or complaint, of hypocrisy. She has been a leading advocate of the #MeToo movement.
But so far feminists, the party and the media have given her a pass. Only the Sacramento Bee newspaper has demanded more answers from her, unlike every other major politician who has recently found themselves in a similar circumstance. The Bee’s board implied that she’s not ready for prime time.
“This is hardly a propitious beginning to a presidential candidacy,” the paper chided.
Warren, like Sanders, is a darling of the party’s progressive wing. The 69-year-old’s fierce criticism of Wall Street and big banks has made her that industry’s No. 1 enemy. Her role in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — it was the then-Harvard professor’s brainchild — particularly irks the industry.
While cruising to reelection as Massachusetts’ senior senator in 2018, she amassed a large campaign war chest that can be transferred to her presidential account. Her PAC was also one of the most active on behalf of other candidates. She had doled out $284,441 in 2018’s two-year cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
However, her stock has been dropping since she bungled an announcement that was supposed to put to bed an old controversy about her claims of Native American heritage. Instead, she not only looked foolish, but dishonest. And her subsequent “clarifications” have only kept the controversy in the headlines. Her hometown paper has called on her to stand down. The Boston Globe said that Warren “missed her moment” by not seeking the nomination in 2016. Bookmakers, who dropped her odds to 12-to-1, are unimpressed with the tortured rollout of her campaign. Given she's drawn mostly negative headlines recently, they haven't boosted her chances.
Coast Guard Photo
The caveat about mayors applies less to Bloomberg, who is probably better known for the media company that bears the billionaire’s name than his 12 years leading the Big Apple. The Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat shelled out at least $112 million last cycle to help Democratic candidates across the country. He ends 2018 as the biggest non-party backer of Democratic House candidates.
Bloomberg is making the talk-show rounds and visiting early-voting states as he decides whether he’ll go for it this time (he’s flirted with running before). He says he’d chart a “middle-of-the-road strategy.” He’s previewed some of his top issues with his significant donations to groups advocating for gun control and tougher environmental standards. He could quickly turn the sophisticated political operation he assembled to run his PACs into a presidential committee. That, and his $51 billion fortune, would make him a formidable early-stage candidate.
Courtesy National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons
Montana’s Bullock is another potential candidate with the kind of profile that many strategists believe a Democrat needs to win in 2020. He’s a noncoastal moderate who secured reelection while Trump cruised to victory in his state in 2016. (Big Sky Country does have a propensity for choosing moderate Democrats for governor and the U.S. Senate, however.) As chairman of the bipartisan National Governors Association, Bullock’s national profile is on the rise. Throw in a lawsuit against the Trump administration — Montana is trying to prevent the IRS from dropping a disclosure rule relating to politically active nonprofits — and his name is sure to make the headlines.
He’s testing the waters. He’s visited Iowa a handful of times already, including hitting the state fair — a can’t-miss event for anyone serious about running for president. He also made his way to New Hampshire last summer. Such heavy travel to the first two states on the presidential nominating calendar doesn’t go unnoticed.
The two-term Colorado governor is weighing a presidential bid. He too has traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire. If he decides to go for it, the one-time Denver mayor’s initial strengths will be having twice won statewide in a “purple” state and being a moderate who doesn’t hail from the coasts or a traditionally Democratic state.
Courtesy U.S. Department of Labor via Wikimedia Commons
Former Maryland Rep. Delaney was the first Democrat to file presidential candidate papers, but he has a long road before becoming the first House member to jump from the lower chamber to the White House since Gerald Ford — who was never actually elected president (or vice president, for that matter).
But if he falls short, it won’t be for a lack of effort. The three-term congressman believes his doggedness will pay off. He’s been to Iowa 20 times — hitting all 99 counties already — and New Hampshire a dozen since declaring his candidacy in July 2017. He also has field offices and campaign workers in both states. A poll showing his name recognition among Hawkeye state Democrats at a whopping 79 percent suggests he’s doing something right.
He’s also willing to put his money where his mouth is. With an estimated net worth of $90 million, he’s one of the wealthiest members of Congress. He self-funded much of his first two campaigns and has already shelled out millions from his own pocket on TV ads in the early-voting states. And unlike many of his eventual rivals, he gave up his day job. He did not seek a fourth term in November.
The former Virginia governor’s résumé is second only to Biden’s in terms of breadth. He was instrumental in President Clinton’s 1996 reelection. He was a rainmaker when he led the Democratic National Committee in the early 2000s, catching the party up to the GOP in the money chase. In 2013, he successfully parlayed those behind-the-scenes roles into an electoral career of his own.
His access to the party’s deepest pockets would be a major asset, as would being a former chief executive of a swing state. His ties to the Clintons could cut both ways, however.
The Connecticut senator, who just cruised to re-election, doesn’t plan to run, but that hasn’t curbed speculation about his prospects. He’s been an outspoken critic of the gun industry and the National Rifle Association since the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy rocked the Constitution State and the country. His PAC aggressively fund-raised and bestowed donations upon his more vulnerable colleagues in the 2018 election cycle.
The two-term Washington governor may lead a state that was considered purple not too long ago, but, with his stances on climate change and immigration alone, a GOP opponent could easily paint the former veteran U.S. House member as a liberal.
As president of the Democratic Governors Association, Inslee crisscrossed the country in 2018 — including stops in Iowa and New Hampshire — to promote his current and would-be colleagues and to talk up his ideas for combatting climate change. Democrats’ gain of seven governors’ mansions on his watch has raised his national profile and earned him bragging rights.
Oregon Sen. Merkley said he would decide in the first three months of 2019. The Beaver State’s junior senator has made a name for himself by forcefully squaring off with Trump over his administration’s controversial policy, now ended, of separating minor children from their illegal immigrant parents at the southern border.
“I have stayed in this conversation because I have been received so well in living rooms and porches here in New Hampshire and Iowa and Nevada and South Carolina,” he recently told a Granite State newspaper. First elected in the 2008 Democratic wave, Merkley would be vying for the support of the party’s progressive wing.
Courtesy Department of Defense
For all the talk about the Democratic Party’s need to get beyond the coasts, there sure are a lot of New Yorkers on these early lists, and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand must be considered first of equals potentially vying from the Empire State.
First appointed to the Senate from the House in 2009 to replace Hillary Clinton when she became secretary of state, Gillibrand practically inherited a national spotlight. She’s been a major advocate for sexual assault and harassment victims, especially in the military, which has brought her further national attention. However, her denouncements of President Clinton and disgraced former Minn. Sen. Al Franken were more controversial. She became a heroine of the #MeToo movement, but alienated Clinton allies, who still hold tremendous sway in the party.
At $538,000 last cycle, she was the most generous PAC donor to other candidates of the potential 2020 contenders.
President Obama’s first attorney general is more likely to seek the Democratic nomination than most people on this list. He launched the National Democratic Redistricting Committee in 2017 to fight Republicans’ advantage in redistricting — the decennial process by which all statehouse and U.S. House of Representatives districts are redrawn. In many states, Republicans control the entire process. Both parties, when given the opportunity, draw districts to their advantage, a practice known as gerrymandering.
The NDRC has Obama’s support: The 44th president cut an ad for the political nonprofit as it sought to influence the midterm elections. But Holder’s closeness to Obama, which could be an asset in the primary, could be a liability in the general election.
Ohio Rep. Ryan has already hired Sanders’ 2016 Iowa campaign coordinator. The operative, Pete D’Alessandro, says he joined Ryan’s nascent national political team to pay back the eight-term congressman for supporting D’Alessandro in his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District.
Like Brown, Ryan would benefit from his Buckeye State origins. He’s talked frequently since the 2016 election about Democrats’ need to reconnect with Rust Belt voters. He’s also talked about the House Democratic Caucus’s need for new leadership. He sought to replace California Rep. Nancy Pelosi as minority leader in 2016, backed by many younger members who are frustrated by the longevity of the caucus’s leadership. He took a shellacking, but his challenge garnered headlines.
White House photo
The longest shots: Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. Julian Castro, who was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama as well as also mayor of San Antonio, Texas (and is officially running). Ditto Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. California Rep. Eric Swalwell.
Americans love the idea of an Oprah Winfrey candidacy, but she has made clear that while she is happy to stump for certain candidates, she has no interest in becoming one herself. And finally, the young Democratic voters and activists who are trying to promote Rep. Ocasio-Cortez of New York need to read the Constitution. Again: she won’t be old enough to take office until 2024.
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