As high-profile Democratic senators and governors steel themselves for a race to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020, at least six sitting House Democrats are rumored to be weighing runs.
In a field potentially 30-deep and studded with one-name star power like Bernie and Biden and Booker and, yes, even Oprah, it begs the question: Why would a lowly House member get into the mix?
Historically, many factors have worked against them running for president. They have less time, less money, less name recognition and less faith that they can actually defeat seasoned political operatives in key primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Just one sitting House member has been elected president: James Garfield.
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Eyes on the (consolation) prize
But piecing together an admirable presidential campaign comes with a host of consolation prizes, multiple Republican and Democratic operatives told Roll Call.
For starters, a strong bid for president automatically puts a candidate on the short list for vice president and, if the eventual party nominee wins the general election, Cabinet positions.
“Some of the intelligent, well-spoken, photogenic House candidates, I think — whether it’s their stated goal or whether it’s a fallback goal — they could definitely stand to raise their profiles to put themselves in line for major Cabinet positions,” said Jesse Benton, who managed former Texas GOP Rep. Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign.
Just look at the Trump administration. Onetime 2016 candidate Ben Carson is Trump’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Rick Perry, another 2016 Republican hopeful, is his Energy secretary. Chris Christie was long rumored to be one of Trump’s top options for attorney general before he settled on Jeff Sessions.
The same holds for Barack Obama’s administration: 2008 Democratic runner-up Hillary Clinton became Obama’s first secretary of State. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, another 2008 also-ran, became his Agriculture secretary. And when Joe Biden dropped out of the 2008 primary, Obama pegged him to be his running mate.
For House Democrats considering 2020 bids, the key will be gaining an early footing as viable candidates, making that first primary debate stage.
“Running for president can be a really good platform to get their own message out there, get their own name out there, and build their profile,” Benton said.
Money, money, money
Historically, there have been numerous barriers to entry for House members looking to jump into the presidential pool, and money might be the tallest.
Key word there: historically.
House members’ donor bases are generally confined to the people and industries within their own districts. It takes years, sometimes decades, to cultivate relationships with donor networks across the nation.
“If Nancy Pelosi wanted to run, that’d be one thing — she’s been to every state, she knows all the big donors,” said Keith Nahigian, who has worked on multiple Republican presidential campaigns, including Bob Dole’s in 1996, John McCain’s in 2000 and, most recently, former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s in 2012.
But some Republican and Democratic strategists told Roll Call they are skeptical that the traditional roadmap for presidential campaign success — relying on big donors for the bulk of a candidate’s fundraising — still applies with the dawn of online fundraising and social media.
Plus, running for president and forging relationships with moneyed bigwigs— even if they don’t donate to your campaign — increases a candidate’s name recognition in those circles for solicitations for subsequent statewide races and, perhaps, another presidential run down the road.
One of the first House candidates to cash in on online fundraising on a massive scale was Paul in 2012. As an anti-war, libertarian candidate in the GOP primaries, he raised $41 million, with roughly $35 million pouring into his campaign coffers online.
“We are in a disruptive political system,” Benton said. “The weakening of the national party structure, the weakening of the kingmaker effect. … That’s alive and well in both parties, but even more so in the Democratic Party now that Republicans have power.”
O’Rourke, one of the six House Democrats weighing a 2020 run in addition to Delaney, shouldn’t have any problem raising money, if the $70 million he raked in from roughly a million individual contributors in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Texas Sen. Ted Cruz last month is any indication.
If he runs for higher office, you can bet he’s holding on to that same donor list.
O’Rourke’s national prominence soared after a video went viral this summer of him defending professional athletes who kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality. It probably helped that he was running an underdog campaign against Cruz, one of the Senate’s most notoriously loathed and high-profile members.
“People knew who Beto was outside of Texas because he had a great online presence,” a Democratic operative who is close to another potential House candidate said. “Yeah, he had big institution donors, but especially on the Democratic side, the small donors is what’s going to propel you.”
Grassroots fundraising, many strategists have come to believe, has now reached the same level of importance as courting big-time party donors.
“Even Hillary Clinton, the most insider of insider candidates we’ve had in a generation, most of her donations came from small donations under $200,” the Democratic operative said. “Don’t get me wrong, she was great at getting the big money, too. But if you look at where her money came from, it came from the bottom, it came from small donors too.”
Some of the six House Democrats with 2020 ambitions have already taken steps to close the fundraising gap with their more established colleagues in the Senate.
Delaney, a millionaire businessman who co-founded and sold two companies that now trade on the New York Stock Exchange, has mostly bankrolled his own campaign with a $3.5 million loan.
Swalwell, who spoke openly to Roll Call about the prospect of a 2020 bid but has not decided if he will run, has made multiple trips down Interstate 5 from his district just east of San Francisco to make inroads with influential donors in Hollywood, one former aide with knowledge of the congressman’s travels said.
As founder and chairman of the House Democratic Future Forum, Swalwell, 38, has visited more than 50 cities across the country since he took office in 2013 to meet with millennials at town hall events. Those visits have served the dual purpose of diversifying and expanding his potential donor list.
Moulton, a former Marine Corps officer who has taken preliminary steps to launch a campaign, headed one of the most successful and expansive leadership PACs in the country this past cycle, endorsing 67 federal and local candidates in 28 states and supporting them with resources and training.
Rooted in Boston and leaning heavily on a network of financial- and medical-sector donors, Moulton raised more than $6 million through his Serve America PAC, Serve America Victory Fund, and Serve America Women’s Victory Fund.
No time to spare
With elections every two years, House members are always vulnerable to primary challenges and losing the trust of their constituency if they’re not back in their home districts campaigning.
It’s already a brutal schedule. Add the heft of a presidential run on to that load, and the balance could teeter.
Delaney, who has already visited all 99 counties in Iowa and sunk $1 million into TV ads in the state before any other serious candidate has officially entered, did not run for re-election this cycle and will campaign full-time.
“I don’t think you can actually be an engaged member of Congress — whether in the House or the Senate — and run for president. I think it’s totally unfair to your constituents,” Delaney said. “You have to own your ambitions. Public service shouldn’t be a hedge. … You should be all in.”
By pushing in all of his chips to defeat Cruz in the Senate and coming up 3 points short last month, O’Rourke will be jobless when the House turns over in January.
Ironically, that gives him a distinct edge over the other House hopefuls, said Nahigian, who thinks the 45-year-old Texan is the only House Democrat with a real shot at competing for the 2020 nomination.
“He can go live in New Hampshire or go live in Iowa or go live in South Carolina for the next two years,” Nahigian said.
Still, O’Rourke would be swimming against the tides of history in pursuit of the Oval Office.
James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and Garfield are the only presidents for whom the House was their highest office before reaching the presidency.
“I hate to rain on the parade of these folks, but there’s a reason it’s happened only three times,” Nahigian said, “and that was a time when people were writing with feathers.”
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