Playing Field

Democratic Presidential Contenders Stay in the Shadows

Republican hopefuls have already hit the trail, but the weird makeup of the 2016 Democratic field has the party stuck on hold. David Catanese talks to party officials about how the race will unfold.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s visit to Des Moines on Thursday will mark the fourth political stop for Republicans with White House aspirations in a single week.

The schedules of the 2016 Democratic prospects are strikingly dormant by comparison. And Democratic leaders in the early presidential-nominating states aren’t expecting the lull on their side to let up in the coming summer months.

“Because they’re not in control of the White House, I think [Republicans] have got a bit more opportunity to push back right now,” acknowledges Troy Price, the executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party. “I think Democrats are taking it a little easy right now on that front.”

Just this week, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul campaigned at a party dinner in New Hampshire; Walker swung through GOP galas in Connecticut, New York, and Iowa; Rick Santorum announced he was heading back to the Hawkeye State in August; and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was slated as the headliner for the Orange County, California, GOP’s June 14 dinner.

In the month of May alone, GOP contenders with their eye on the White House logged at least a dozen separate political stops around the country. Democrats had one: Vice President Joe Biden’s May 3 jaunt to Columbia, South Carolina.

Sure, it’s very early, and it’s customary for the party out of power to be more aggressive in ramping up for its next shot at recapturing the presidency. But the unique composition of the Democratic field is undoubtedly having an impact on the vast travel disparity between the parties.

Hillary Clinton—the undisputed frontrunner, who is earning eye-popping 50-percentage-point margins over her potential rivals in early state primary polling—is out on the speaking circuit. But her paid talks are mostly closed to the public and largely apolitical. The former secretary of State’s unmatched popularity allows her to put off politicking appreciably longer than most typical candidates.

Traversing the country and hitting the rubber-chicken-dinner circuit is part of Biden’s job description. But the shadow of Clinton places the sitting veep in the unusual position of maintaining a holding pattern. Appearing earlier this month at South Carolina’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, Biden assured the Democratic faithful he would have been there even if the Palmetto State wasn’t included on the early primary calendar. “As soon as I show up in South Carolina, the Washington press corps comes out, saying, ‘Is Biden getting ready?’ I’ve got to make clear: I would go anywhere [Rep.] Jim Clyburn asked me to go.”

But like Clinton and unlike many of the GOP prospects, Biden is a known quantity across the country, and he’s certainly not starved of headlines.

Even the two main Democratic governors eyeing a 2016 bid have been careful to show their overt interest. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s venture into South Carolina in March was billed as a Democratic Governors Association–related excursion. And he only just recently came clean about devoting the latter half of the year to “reflection time” about a presidential campaign.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on the other hand, has another reelection campaign ahead of him in 2014, so any public signal of bigger dreams would stray from the notoriously disciplined and media-shy governor.

“I think they don’t want to be too overly ambitious,” says South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jamie Harrison.

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He notes that O’Malley, along with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar, was helpful to Elizabeth Colbert-Busch’s failed special election congressional run. But only Paul came out an issued a formal endorsement in the race, publicly praising Mark Sanford at a time when many establishment Republicans had written the former governor off.

Harrison said he’ll reach out to Democrats with 2016 ambitions for a fall celebration with party stalwarts that is in the works, but admitted, “Over the next few months, we don’t have any 2016 prospects coming in.”

Last year, the Iowa Democratic Party’s early summer Hall of Fame dinner featured Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. This year the event didn’t net a single out-of-state luminary to honor retiring Sen. Tom Harkin.

“We really haven’t gotten started here yet,” says Price, who adds that party organizers won’t look for a 2016-er until the fall’s Jefferson-Jackson Day fundraiser.

It’s similar in New Hampshire, where Paul and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal each made stops over the last two weeks to help fill up local GOP coffers. There’s nothing on the Dems’ docket beyond a Gillibrand fundraiser for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

“If you look back in 2005, we didn’t have a ton of visits either, so that’s fine,” says Granite State Democratic Party chair Raymond Buckley. “Senator Clinton never came up to New Hampshire until 2007, so having them come up is not the most important thing. We’re doing quite well without them.”

So while the Republican race is in full throttle, the Democrats are left in standby mode. At least until fall.

Early state Democratic leaders are making the best of it, attempting to keep their foot soldiers engaged by highlighting what they’ll be up against.

“Wacko Bird” was the subject of the fundraising solicitation Buckley pushed out to activists when Paul hit the ground in Concord on Monday.

“As long as Republicans are making these headlines, bringing in one extremist after another, I think that’s terrific,” he says.