SHADOW CAMPAIGN

The 2020 Dem Class Is Already Frantically Making Moves Behind the Scenes

Some are traveling the country, others are monopolizing the airwaves, and all of them are leaving the door open for a run.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

If you’re a member of the media, Eric Garcetti wants you to know: He’s thinking about running for president.

Late last month, the Los Angeles mayor sat for an hour-long interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein to discuss the “hunger to go back to a politics of addition and multiplication,” and how “somebody has to say to Washington, D.C.: Enough is enough is enough.”

A week earlier, Garcetti was playing not-so-coy about his 2020 ambitions to raucous applause during an interview on The Daily Show. Two days after that, he was philosophizing about the need to “lead with love” in a glowing GQ profile that cast him as the “anti-Trump, pro–Star Wars man we need.”

The first Democratic primary contest won’t be held for another 18 months. But the campaign for the attention of prospective Democratic primary voters, as exemplified by the Garcetti flirtation offensive (he also, a source said, has held at least one private meeting with members of a top, Democratic-leaning D.C. law firm), is well underway.

Already, a slew of those likely to populate a very crowded Democratic primary field have taken the time-honored step of writing a book that reflects their biography and world view while also allowing them to go on tour to test drive a message to voters.

Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have books scheduled to be published almost immediately after the 2018 midterm elections. Former Vice President Joe Biden has spent the better part of this year on a nationwide book tour. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) announced that his book about his military service in Iraq that will be released in early April 2019. A few weeks before that, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) is set to release her political memoir, according to one person familiar with the book.

“Everyone is making moves,” said one top party operative. “There will be a lot of books for Amazon to sell.”

Those moves are not always as overt as penning a memoir. Behind the scenes, many likely 2020 candidates are engaging in increasingly aggressive shadow campaigning as they seek a viable slot in what seems likely to be a crowded campaign field.

The Daily Beast has learned that in recent months, billionaire donor Tom Steyer, Garcetti, and Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock have been in talks with various strategists over political messaging and communications strategy should they decide to run. These talks have ranged from the broad (what issues would best define a perspective candidacy) to the detailed (how a modern-day press operation should look and be structured).

Steyer, Democratic aides concede, appears to be the furthest along among the group, with an email list that aides say now is more than 5.4 million strong, a digital-heavy focus to his operations, a layer of staff to help coordinare his two main operational arms (the Need to Impeach campaign and the climate organization NextGen), and plans to use the August recess to continue barnstorming the country with town hall appearances. His message of impeachment has also placed him at the vanguard of the party’s anti-Trump fervor. But top Democratic lawmakers and leading operatives are not sold on that as the best messaging construct.  

If the 2016 GOP field was a clown car, the 2020 Dems will fill Willie Nelson’s bus—dozens pouring out in a cloud of weed and French-fry exhaust.
A Democratic operative

“The ability to build a grassroots network around that issue is not insignificant,” said Joel Benenson, a chief strategist for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns. “The question is can you build a durable presidential campaign on impeaching the incumbent. Keep in mind if that’s part of your campaign it is an implicit acknowledgement that the incumbent is going to win.”

While Steyer is furthest along in operational build up, others are still taking steps. That includes the non-elected types, such as Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, who one Democratic operative told The Daily Beast has had talks with party strategists over what initial steps he’d need to take if he did decide to run.

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Others are much farther along, with Biden’s flirtation with running at a point that, according to one high-ranking Democratic operative, “people are talking about moving to Delaware for his presidential.”

Two governors have taken notable steps to raise their profile. Jay Inslee (D-WA) has, as part of his perch atop the Democratic Governors Association, done events in Iowa, Nevada, Maine, Colorado, along with delivering speeches as D.C. donor confabs.

Bullock, for his part, has held boosted candidates in Iowa and will do so in New Hampshire in August. According to one party donor, the Montana Democrat has held talks with fundraisers in Los Angeles and New York. A source close to the Bullock—the only Democratic governor is a state that Trump win in 2016—told The Daily Beast that he is “clearly thinking about” a presidential run focused around  his pursuit of campaign finance reform.

Last week, the Montana Democrat filed a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Department of the Treasury in response to the overhauling of a requirement that certain tax-exempt 501(c) groups disclose their major donors to the IRS.

“We need to do everything we can to make sure that elections are determined by voters, not by special interests or outside groups,” Bullock said in a phone interview with The Daily Beast while he was in California for meetings. Asked directly about a potential run in 2020, he said only that it was “a ways away.”

“I think I have lessons from Montana that go beyond Montana but I don’t know what I’m going to be doing at that point,” Bullock said.

But the main headliners in the Democratic Party continue to be its Senatorial class, which is sending a number of members to the Netroots Nation confab in New Orleans this week—an annual gathering of online progressive activists that was a must-attend for presidential aspirants during the latter Bush years.

Over the past several months, these lawmakers have conspicuously ramped up their media exposure, in what is being interpreted as a soft war for poll positioning when the 2020 primary truly starts. Since early June, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has appeared on CNN and MSNBC over a dozen times to discuss everything from issues of the day to the broader state of the Democratic party. Booker did just four cable news interviews during this same part of last year.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who for years refused to answer questions from reporters in the halls of congress, has begun appearing regularly on MSNBC during primetime and even daytime hours. And on three separate occasions this year, the Massachusetts Democrat sat for interviews on Trump’s favorite television network, Fox News. The hits were ostensibly to talk about major topics of interest (the scandal at Equifax and marijuana law reform), but they had the secondary effect of softening her image within a hostile crowd.

Sanders has begun hosting his own town halls on topic du jours like Medicare for All, along with remaining a cable fixture and barnstorming the country for like-minded progressives and Democratic Socialist candidates.

Gillibrand went to the Cosmopolitan office to talk about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. She even showed up on the late-night Vice show Desus & Mero.

The Democrats eyeing a White House run are careful to avoid the perception that they aren’t focused on helping their party take back seats in Congress during the 2018 midterm elections. And even if there are planned announcements for early 2019, no one outside of Rep. John Delaney—a Maryland congressman who launched his presidential campaign in early 2017—wants to share.

In conversations with over a dozen advisers and operatives, the sense was that most candidates won’t begin rolling out their message before the conclusion of the 2018 midterm elections.  As one Democratic operative suggested, if things go poorly for Democrats, voters may gravitate towards one single figure who they think is most “electable.” If things go very well, there may be more lanes for a number of people who are more personally appealing to different voters.

“If the 2016 GOP field was a clown car, the 2020 Dems will fill Willie Nelson’s bus—dozens pouring out in a cloud of weed and French-fry exhaust,” one operative told The Daily Beast.