The Democratic presidential sweepstakes might seem like a tale of Joe Biden and the Seven Senators, but there are plenty of governors and mayors looking for a chance to steal the spotlight from the former vice president and other headliners.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is headed to the early caucus state of Nevada on Saturday and will soon travel to the first primary state of New Hampshire as he mulls a White House bid. Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor and longtime Democratic power player, is showing up on cable news and writing newspaper op-eds. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock are busy with day jobs but recently finished an ambitious round of midterm campaigning. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper left office this month, and he spent part of the fall on the road.
Billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says he’d fund his own race if he runs, and even Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is making noise.
Each person is making moves that could result in a presidential campaign. But in the early days of a Democratic primary, the question is whether someone without a Washington resume can win a contest that’s so far dominated by Biden, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and several nationally known senators, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey. Other senators who might join the race include Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. And that number of senators may grow.
“Being an outsider governor or an outsider mayor is a good place to run from to cast yourself as somebody with executive experience and leadership at a time when people don’t trust a dysfunctional Congress,” said Dave Hamrick, who managed then-Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland’s unsuccessful bid in 2016.
“The challenge,” Hamrick said, “is figuring out whether your story is the right one for this moment and selling it when so many other people are out there.”
For now, Inslee is the most publicly active of the governors. In Nevada, he’ll address activists at the Battle Born Progress convention.
Jamal Raad, an Inslee aide, said the governor will highlight Washington state’s Medicaid expansion and family-leave policy while repeating his call for action on climate change. Raad notes Nevada Democrats’ new combined control of the legislative and executive branches, with the governor’s office being one of seven that Democrats flipped in November under Inslee’s chairmanship of the Democratic Governors Association.
“He wants to lay out for them what kind of progressive agenda they can accomplish,” Raad said.
Campaign finance laws give non-federal officials more leeway to raise money without having an official presidential campaign or exploratory committee, so there’s less pressure on them to announce campaigns than for senators who want to travel. If those governors and mayors announce early and then fail to show fundraising prowess, their campaigns could be short-lived. But if they wait too long, they could lose out on media attention, donors and key staffers.
The sweet spot will be qualifying for the first party-sponsored debate in June. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez hasn’t yet announced debate qualification rules.
Inslee is traveling now using his federal political action committee.
Garcetti’s PAC raised $2.6 million for Democrats last year. He brought in $100,000 each for several state parties, including early voting states, and he recently hired the former executive director of the Democratic Party in South Carolina, which holds the South’s first primary.
Bullock, a former DGA chairman like Inslee, traveled extensively in 2018 but now is dedicated to his state’s legislative session. His national advisers include Jen Palmieri, a former communications director to the Obama White House and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
In Colorado, Hickenlooper opened a federal political action committee last fall and has made some top staff hires.
McAuliffe, who is also a former DNC chairman, is in contact with his old network of donors and aides; he has the personal wealth to pay for some of his own early travel.
Besides competing for money and staff, Hamrick said, candidates will have to choose their “lanes” — political identities that make them stand out.
The 2016 race amounted to Clinton and the non-Clinton lane, filled by Bernie Sanders. In 2020, it will be more complicated: policy distinctions; generational divides among older and younger candidates; demographic distinctions among white men, women and candidates of color; and a divide between Washington politicians and those elected to non-federal posts.
“There are overlaps, of course,” Hamrick said.
So Bullock can be the 52-year-old white governor who mixes his Ivy League education with his Montana roots. McAuliffe, the 61-year-old former Virginia governor, can be the establishment liberal who restored felon voting rights and pushed Medicaid expansion but who warns against a “federal jobs guarantee” and “free college tuition.”
Inslee said in an interview last fall that he doesn’t buy into “lanes,” but the 67-year-old also has made clear his intention to be the “climate change candidate” if he runs. He has a trip to New Hampshire later this month to speak on that topic at Dartmouth College.