Democrats Prep For 2020

 David Catanese

Elizabeth Warren made a surprise appearance at a conference of American Indians. Cory Booker swore off accepting money from corporate political action committees. Kirsten Gillibrand signed onto a bill that would legalize pot.

Almost two years before the 2020 presidential primaries kick into gear, Democrats with possible designs on the White House are taking preparatory steps to get their political houses in order.

That entails burnishing their progressive credentials, mitigating their political vulnerabilities and positioning themselves as leaders on the issues driving the national conversation.

It may be too early to make a decision on a 2020 campaign, but it's never too soon for an ambitious politician to fortify their unique brand and alleviate a nagging weakness. In fact, it's smarter to do it now then to try to catch up amid the frenzy of a campaign later.

"Finding your voice and finding out who you are is more important than having 'X' amount of stops to this state or greeting this amount of donors," says Bill Hyers, a Democratic campaign operative who advised former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's presidential campaign. "It's as much about finding your personality, finding what makes you different from everyone else, distinguishing yourself from the crowd of 20 other people."

In a span of only hours last week, three leading Democratic senators made such moves.

Warren, who is up for re-election for a second U.S. Senate term in Massachusetts this year, popped up unannounced at the National Congress of American Indians' winter session in Washington to address her claim of Native American heritage that has dogged her since her first run in 2012 and spurred President Donald Trump to mock her as "Pocahontas."

It was the clearest indication to date that Warren's team believed she had to do more to put to rest the controversy of embracing a minority status without hard genealogical evidence.

While acknowledging the joke and conceding she wasn't a member of any tribe, she stuck by her claim that her mother's family was part Native American.

"I never used my family tree to get a break or get ahead," she said. "I never used it to advance my career."

In an attempt to move past the conversation about her own heritage, she told the gathering that any time her opponents brought up her family's story, she would "use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities."

It didn't stop Republicans from deriding her as "Fauxcahontas," but her appearance was widely seen as a way to establish a template for how she'll address the attack in the future.

"It's a speech I wished she'd had given six years ago," says Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant based in Boston, but adds "she took a weapon that had been used against her and now has a chance to use it against her opponents."

"She went to not talking about it to defining it on her own terms, explaining her thought process behind it and talking with Native Americans. I believe that many, if not most, Native Americans now will come to her defense."

Booker, the New Jersey senator, announced Tuesday that after hearing from constituents he would no longer accept campaign funding from corporate PACs. The move places him in line with other progressive Democrats, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Warren and Gillibrand, who made the same pledge earlier in the day.

Having been the top recipient of Wall Street-related money in 2014, Booker is particularly susceptible to criticism that he's tainted by financial interests. The move attempts to reduce his exposure on an animating issue for liberals, who distrusted Hillary Clinton's close ties to the banking industry throughout the 2016 campaign.

"I think they are all trying to replicate Sen. Sanders' relatively successful job of connecting on the issue with voters. They saw the passion and intensity that his supporters had in that populist message," says Aaron Scherb, legislative director for Common Cause, a group dedicated to campaign finance reform. "They're trying to show there's little distance between them on these issues."

Gillibrand, the neighboring New York senator who, like Warren, faces a 2018 re-election race, was the third biggest congressional recipient of Wall Street-related money in 2012. She portrayed her decision to swear off corporate PAC funds as a natural progression of her commitment to "transparency and accountability."

A day later, she revealed she would become the second co-sponsor of Booker's legislation to legalize marijuana nationwide, describing it as not only a social justice issue, but a moral one.

"In our state, in my city, if you are African-American, if you are Latina, you are going to be ten times more likely to be arrested and convicted for marijuana than a white member of our community," Gillibrand said in a Facebook Live post standing alongside Booker. "It's terrible, because the usage is the same between black, brown and white people."

Charlie King, a former aide to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo who has known Gillibrand for years, describes her as "careful bold."

"She'll be the first person out of the box on something that is ultimately inevitable, which is good politics and very shrewd. If she's the first one out of the box on the marijuana issue, a number of people will follow," King says. "She took a bold position, but it's also careful."

Gillibrand, who has repeatedly said she won't run for president in 2020 hasn't convinced reporters or even friendly political operatives that she won't change her mind down the road once she navigates her 2018 re-election.

"I don't think anyone's ever been ironclad when they're not running. I remember when Barack Obama was not running," Hyers jokes. "If you say you're not, it's probably because she's not right now, but you never know where you're going to be later. If you had to make a decision next week, it might be a different answer."

But King takes the senator at her word and says a presidential campaign might be difficult for Gillibrand to mount unless she strives for a stronger connection to the African-American community.

"I think she has a long way to go to build that base, both within New York and beyond New York," he says. "She's not as strong on the issues in the African-American community as she could be and not as involved in those issues as she can be. I just think she needs to be seen more in the African-American community."

From pot to health care to immigration policy, the trajectory of the heart of the party is a stampede to the left. And no possible contender wants to be caught behind the pack or out of step. That's why when Sanders introduced a dramatic expansion of the Medicare system to cover all Americans back in September, he had a third of the Democratic Senate caucus with him, a stark indication of the liberal drift of the party.

"I'm not sure that somebody who had Hillary Clinton stances right now – without the name Hillary Clinton – could do that well," Hyers says.

Sanders has undoubtedly ruled-in the possibility of running again. Given the national name recognition and donor base he established from his 2016 insurgent bid, his challenge is a bit different than the others: To look more like a plausible, electable candidate that the Democratic establishment could swallow, or at least not work actively to thwart.

On that front, he's shown more conciliatory stripes recently, including on the immigration debate, by signing on to a bipartisan compromise, written by GOP Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, that ultimately failed. While Sanders acknowledged "this clearly is not the bill I would have written ... I am sorry that it was not passed." That gave him a more centrist position than Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who declined to support the bipartisan measure that netted 54 votes due to its appropriation of $25 billion for a southern border wall.

For his more strident supporters, Sanders is preparing to take to the road later this month to rail against the GOP tax bill. His planned stops are in three states where Trump beat Clinton: Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, which just happens to host the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

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