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Opinion: Who will represent the Democrats in 2020?

After Trump’s election it would be a mistake to ignore the long shots, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

WHILE ACRIMONY AND inertia reigned in Washington DC in recent weeks, to the severe detriment of hundreds of thousands of federal employees (and millions more who depend on a fully functioning United States government for their livelihoods) a host of aspirants entered the fray to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 2020.

There will soon be more too – looking to raise big dollars and to bring on board the best political consultants and seasoned local operatives.

Indeed, the field could feature up to two dozen notable and accomplished men and women who are diverse in every fashion.

It is improbable that there will be that many candidates in the end, but at least that number of quite serious people are examining the feasibility of a run and considering whether a realistic path to the nomination exists.

It would approach a book-length tome to give each of their chances a fair airing.

So at this admittedly early stage – the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary are more than a year off – what follows is an attempt to devise groups of similar travellers and to make a salient observation or two about what may be ahead of them.

Household names

The first group might aptly be labelled the senior figures with household names. Former vice president Joe Biden is the 850 pound gorilla lurking around the ring at this incipient stage.

He remains very popular among all of his party’s core constituencies, has reams of experience and still appeals to voters in Middle America who have little time for most leading Democrats.

That said, his advanced age is an issue and he knows it. A reported informal outreach to former congressman Beto O’Rourke as a possible running mate suggests as much. Moreover, his role in the infamous 1991 hearings on Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the United States Supreme Court would be the subject of intense scrutiny.

Some of the die-hard followers of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders desperately want to see him run again. There is an undeniable base that would support him no matter what.

He is even older than Biden, though, and recent revelations of allegedly widespread sexual harassment in his 2016 insurgent campaign won’t go down well in the #MeToo era.

Senator Elizabeth Warren is the sole (all but) declared candidate in this first group. She has been a formidable advocate for struggling Americans both before and after her election to public office.

She is highly-regarded by progressives and has courted African and Latino Americans. But Warren is engulfed in a major controversy.

She has claimed to have Native American heritage and was listed by her employer, Harvard Law School, as a member of a minority.

Following DNA testing, experts interpreted the results as meaning that she had a Native American ancestor, 6-10 generations ago, while others argued there is no way to tell from DNA testing when the claim is so distant. 

If primary voters have electability in mind when they choose someone to oppose (presumably) President Donald Trump, will they back Warren, when many people think she relied on the dubious heritage claim to obtain her privileged position at Harvard?

This widely held supposition is somewhat unfair, yet so is politics, and it isn’t going away.

Senators, governors & congressmen

The second category is the hard-charging pack: senators, governors and congressmen among them.

Senator Kamala Harris made a big splash when she confirmed that she was jumping in. The daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India and a former head prosecutor, Harris is a favourite of many in the liberal wing of the party and of young women, in particular.

She is a Californian and, this time around, that state’s heft will be felt far more strongly because its primary has moved forward from June to March.

Against all of that, less enamoured Democrats will wonder if she can win over hearts and minds in the American heartland, where the Electoral College contest will as always be decided, especially given the sitting president’s demonstrated capacity for exploiting racial tensions.

The rationale behind the increasingly likely challenge of another senator, Sherrod Brown, can be found in one indispensable word: Ohio. President Trump won Ohio rather comfortably and most commentators now say that the state is just about red.

Nonetheless, the unabashed progressive Brown beat his conservative foe handily last November at the same time as a Republican unexpectedly cruised to victory over a Democrat to win the contenst to become the state’s governor. 

Brown asserts that his sceptical attitude to so-called free trade deals means that he is the only Democrat who can definitely win Ohio and Pennsylvania. On the other hand, any area he inhabits is a charisma-free zone and he has little national profile.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has moved steadily leftward after initially casting herself as a moderate and evidently thrives on battling the president, has formally announced. It remains to be seen whether the party will select another New Yorker after Hilary Clinton’s loss.

The able and articulate senator from neighbouring New Jersey, Cory Booker, could encounter similar difficulties. 

Northeastern states will back the Democratic nominee in 2020. Thus, some of the party faithful who want to deny Trump a second term at all costs may be tempted to back someone from elsewhere. This could be a negative for a New Jersey hopeful just as much as for a New York resident.

The thoughtful, low-key Minnesotan, Amy Klobuchar, could get in as well.

Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, Jay Inslee of Washington and John Hickenlooper of Colorado are the most often mentioned sitting or former governors in the mix.

McAuliffe’s very close connections with the Clintons will not work to his benefit and Inslee is a totally unknown quantity outside his home state.

Hickenlooper, a centrist from Colorado, who had a private sector career before entering politics, could emerge as a dark horse in the event he runs. He is rather different to most of the rest and that can be a valuable asset in a large field.

Beto O’Rourke, who excited Democratic activists and fundraisers across the country in his hard-fought loss to Senator Ted Cruz in Texas, is regarded as a top contender and seems to be planning a run.

This time, however, the man hailed by some as ‘the next Obama’ will be competing against plenty of men and women with equally solid progressive credentials and resonating themes – not trying to pull off a one on one upset win over the most despised politician on Capitol Hill.

To go from losing a Senate election to prevailing in a national Democratic presidential primary is also a very steep climb.

Long shots

Finally, there are the long(ish) shots who cannot be dismissed. Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard and Mitch Landrieu are three worth watching.

Castro, former mayor of San Antonio and a cabinet secretary in the Obama administration, is a Mexican American with an inspiring life story.

Gabbard is a Hawaii congresswoman and military veteran who drew attention in the past for bucking the Democratic establishment, primarily on consensus US policy in the Middle East.

And Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans and lieutenant governor of Louisiana, has won elections in unfriendly territory.

Perhaps the most intriguing long shot is the 37-year-old mayor of relatively tiny South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg.

A Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar, who served in Afghanistan and is an openly gay married man, Buttigieg touts a straightforward message: ‘Ours is the party of everyday life’. It is a well-conceived riposte to President Trump’s simple, effective sloganeering.

Prominent Democrats, such as strategist David Axelrod, while terming him “the longest of long shots,” believe he has a promising future.

At any rate, everyone would be wise to remember that someone, who was once a very long shot, presently resides in the White House.

It is extraordinary that a piece naming 16 men and women as viable seekers of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination is per se incomplete. Fans of those omitted here can doubtless articulate valid justifications for why their choice warranted inclusion. Fair enough.

The common refrain these days is that this is, in myriad ways, an unprecedented time in American politics.

Accordingly, the halfway point of this president’s tumultuous first term might be far too late to be issuing warnings. But buckle up all the same. The race to take the fight to Donald Trump is set to be a fascinating, topsy-turvy ride.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.   

About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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