The 2020 Democratic presidential road show is already underway. And 2018 is beginning to look like the dress rehearsal.
Top contenders are making endorsements, picking sides in party primaries and aggressively working the fundraising circuit on behalf of 2018 candidates, all the while building their own name recognition. With many of presidential prospects on the ballot themselves next year, potential challengers to Donald Trump are also stockpiling cash to help run up their re-election margins to burnish their stature for the big election on the horizon.
The early focus on the midterms is a marked departure from previous practice, and a further acceleration of the presidential campaign cycle. Prior to the 2016 presidential primary season, for example, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders largely stayed off the campaign trail and out of elections until late 2014 — roughly six months before they officially announced their campaigns.
But with a historically large presidential field taking shape, more than a dozen prominent Democrats — including governors like Terry McAuliffe and Steve Bullock, and senators like Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris — have recognized the need to distinguish themselves from the crowd. And they are already working hard to advance their brand while helping to reinvigorate the dilapidated party infrastructure in advance of the midterm elections.
“A major consideration for who the party nominates next is going to be whether they have a commitment to really rebuilding the party from the ground up, and that their commitment is to not just their own election but to bringing the party with them,” said Zac Petkanas, a former senior Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton strategist. “It is a way to get some good will early on among people who are going to be influential in the next nominating contest.”
Presidential contenders have always played a long game in the run-up to White House bids, but rarely have so many been so assertive so early.
Behind the scenes, potential candidates are spending significant time in the company of some of the party’s top money men and women, in part to build up their own reserves but often at events designed to assist vulnerable lawmakers who are up for reelection in 2018.
Booker has been especially active — his travel itinerary reads like an atlas of at-risk Democratic incumbents. He’s raised money for grateful colleagues in Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Montana, and Michigan, among others, according to Democrats familiar with the itinerary.
On his rainmaking tour, the New Jersey senator has also held events designed to fill his own coffers, including at the home of Hollywood agent Michael Kives, a prominent party fundraiser for candidates like Clinton.
Booker is one of many currently working the circuit: Kives is also set to host his home-state senator Harris next month as she steps up her own fundraising. The first-year lawmaker spent the last weekend meeting with top party fundraisers in the Hamptons, and she has already raised over $600,000 for Senate colleagues in 2017 while planning a fall tour for still more, according to individuals familiar with Harris’ plans.
Warren, a fundraising juggernaut, has had several California fundraising stops including one in San Francisco where the Massachusetts senator joined Esprit founder Susie Tompkins Buell, a high-level party donor and close Clinton friend. Another gave Warren face-time with Oakland Athletics part-owner Guy Saperstein, who in 2016 offered Warren $1 million to run for president.
Like Booker and Harris, Warren is also lending a helping hand to her Senate colleagues. She headlined a crowded, low-dollar private Detroit fundraiser for Sen. Debbie Stabenow in April, ahead of the Michigan senator’s potentially tough 2018 race. Warren, who is planning an ambitious fundraising schedule for colleagues in the coming months, also sent $10,000 checks to a handful of vulnerable Senate colleagues.
Others still — including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut — have spent the opening months of Trump’s presidency building intimidating campaign war chests that could both scare off potential opponents and turn into groundwork for potential presidential funds in two years: Murphy is sitting on over $5 million, with no prominent challenger, for example.
A wide range of senators, including potential national hopefuls Murphy, Warren, Tim Kaine, Sherrod Brown, Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, and Jeff Merkley also recently attended the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s fundraising weekend in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
McAuliffe’s approach is to spend much of the next year raising cash for Virginia statehouse candidates as well as fellow governors and gubernatorial candidates — a project that the outgoing Virginia governor already started with his hand-picked successor Ralph Northam this year.
McAuliffe, whose frequent refrain is that anyone talking about 2020 instead of 2017 or 2018 is hurting the party, has also set up big-money events for New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy later this summer, Democrats close to the preparations told POLITICO.
Beyond doling out campaign cash, potential candidates like Harris, Warren and Gillibrand have also started using their political capital by endorsing candidates or taking sides in emerging 2018 primaries — Gillibrand, for one, has made a practice of funding promising female candidates in places as varied as New Jersey and Texas.
Sanders is following a similar approach: The progressive icon, who has already returned once this summer to Iowa, is expected to support a wide slate of candidates after formally throwing his endorsement in Maryland’s crowded gubernatorial primary to ex-NAACP President Ben Jealous.
Former Vice President Joe Biden launched a new political group this spring to support promising candidates after a visit to New Hampshire. Bullock similarly built a new group this month — complete with a political team made up of presidential campaign veterans, including pollster Jef Pollock and strategist Nick Baldick — that will fund his travel and give him a way to back other Democratic candidates.
In addition to endearing themselves to lawmakers who could endorse their presidential bids, the endorsements often take prospective candidates to the early-voting states where they can visit activists who are influential in the party’s nominating process. Strategists in Washington and those states expect national figures to descend not only on the gubernatorial and Senate races in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina,but also an upcoming New Hampshire state senate special election and the Manchester, N.H. mayoral race.
“Part of the benefit of staying active and helping other candidates — and helping to confront the grave challenge of the Trump presidency to our country — is it gives me an opportunity to stay close to what people are saying, what people are hearing, what people are thinking. And all of that plays into the decision I will have to make about running for president again,” acknowledged former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has openly toyed with the idea of another run as he crisscrosses the country on behalf of other Democrats. This month he will return to New Hampshire on behalf of state senate and mayoral candidates, after hosting a fundraiser for an Iowa gubernatorial hopeful.
Already, the special election for a U.S. House seat in South Carolina last month drew some star-power: both Booker and Harris sent campaign money to the Democratic candidate there, noted strategists involved in the arrangement, and O’Malley campaigned with him.
O’Malley isn’t alone with his repeated early-state political trips: Sanders and Klobuchar are both due in Iowa twice this summer, and both former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan have entered the outer rungs of the presidential conversation with their own swings through those states. After campaigning in the South Carolina special election and raising money for a colleague in Iowa, Ryan is due in New Hampshire next month for a fundraiser with the Young Democrats, party figures in both Ohio and New Hampshire told POLITICO.
Still, a few potential 2020 candidates are taking a measured, old-fashioned approach. Neither Washington Gov. Jay Inslee nor Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has yet jumped into the fray, and nor has former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
They’re in the minority, though.
“People are going to read into all kinds of things," said Ryan, who gained recognition in November with his ultimately failed bid to unseat House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
"But look, I want to have a bigger voice in the party, and maybe a guy from Youngstown needs to be speaking out," he said, nodding to Trump’s success with voters in districts like his own.