Dem governors struggle for attention in crowded 2020 race

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has been highlighting the perils of a changing climate and the opportunities of new energy industries for decades. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) became the first governor to implement net neutrality rules. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) signed some of the strongest new gun control regulations in recent memory. Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) restored voting rights to more than 150,000 former felons.

In different times, successful governors would rocket to the top of the Democratic field, with clear resumes of accomplishments to contrast with senators more accustomed to talking than passing bills.


But this year, the four governors likely to enter the race for president in the coming days and weeks begin as distinct long shots against rising rock stars already in the race. 

They all hope a year of campaigning across Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada will allow them to persuade primary voters who might be more eager to beat President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE than to pick a groundbreaking nominee.

“People judge action, not just oratory, and governors act. We build, we invent, governors do things,” Inslee said in an interview.

ADVERTISEMENTAsked how he would contrast his record with a sitting senator, Inslee rattled off a litany of policy achievements he will present to Iowa voters when he announces his bid in coming days.

“None of them have created the best paid family leave, the highest minimum wage, the first net neutrality bill, a good gender pay equity, the best voting rights act, the largest transportation package. They haven’t built a birdhouse in Washington, DC. The largest expansion of early childhood education and financial aid. I’ve done these things. Other people have just talked about them,” Inslee said.

Hickenlooper, too, is expected to enter the race with a rally in Denver in the coming week or so. He has identified a campaign manager and brought aboard one of 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE’s top fundraisers as well as one of the Democratic Party’s best-known pollsters.

Bullock is likely to enter the race later this year, after his Republican-controlled legislature wraps up work on the state budget. His team has slowly hired staff, and he has been escorted around Iowa by Attorney General Tom Miller (D), a longtime mentor.

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McAuliffe, who has his own fundraising base from his years as a top party official close to the Clintons, is also likely to announce he will run sometime after the middle of March.

History argues that Democrats have a better chance to win the White House when they nominate a governor than when they look elsewhere.

Since 1900, four of the eight governors who have won the Democratic nomination have gone on to win the White House — Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWill the ‘law and order’ president pardon Roger Stone? Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden The sad spectacle of Trump’s enablers MORE, Jimmy Carter, Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Just four of the 13 non-governors to win the nomination have won the White House, and only one Democratic non-governor — Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden Valerie Jarrett: ‘Democracy depends upon having law enforcement’ MORE — has won the White House in the last 50 years.

But today’s Democratic Party is not the party that nominated Southern centrists or New England elites.

“Our party is young people, people of color and women,” said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who rocketed from relative obscurity to become a front-runner for the 2004 Democratic nomination. “I want a ticket that’s really going to turn on our voter base, because we have to get them out. We have to get them out, because if we don’t, we don’t win.”

Making matters more complex for those governors is the fact that they are straight white men running against the most diverse field ever to seek the presidency, a field stacked with African-Americans, women and a former Cabinet secretary who is Latino. 

Straight white men have dominated American politics since the founding of the republic. Now, for the first time in history, being a member of the most advantaged group in society is actually a disadvantage.

“Somebody asked me about that. They said ‘hey, you’re a straight white male.’ And my answer was, ‘nobody’s perfect,’ ” Inslee quipped.

“I approach this with a lot of humility because I have never experienced what a lot of people have. I’ve never been pulled over by a cop because I’m an African-American teenager driving through a white neighborhood. I’ve never been talked over because I’m a woman at a meeting. So I’ve not experienced that evidence of long pernicious practices in our society,” Inslee said.

Behind the scenes, strategists plotting governors’ runs for office are privately wrestling with how to approach a field of diverse opponents who offer voters something new — and who are generating both huge crowds and eye-popping fundraising numbers.

Thousands have turned up for huge announcement events held by Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook McEnany says Juneteenth is a very ‘meaningful’ day to Trump MORE (D-Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Democrats demand Republican leaders examine election challenges after Georgia voting chaos Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-Minn.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants Black lawmakers unveil bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-N.J.).

Each of those candidates raised millions in their first days in the race — and another senator, Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.), pulled in more than $10 million in the week after he said he would run again.

The strategists said they hope to convince voters that a well-stocked resume is a more reliable barometer of future success than ambitious appeals to liberal aspirations.

And they hope that in the course of a year of campaigning, governors will break through after the spotlight fades from the front-runners.

“The media anoints the celebrity candidates, but when you actually talk to voters, they’re thoughtful and they’re taking their time,” said Anna Greenberg, the Democratic pollster plotting Hickenlooper’s bid. “They’re not looking for purity. They don’t have litmus tests. There’s obviously a baseline set of progressive values you need to hold.”

Top aides to all four governors said Democratic partisans value one quality above all others, including race or gender: An ability to beat Trump.

“The 2019-20 primary electorate is really different because of Trump. People think we’re in such a crisis,” Greenberg said. “Your average Democratic primary voters are interested in someone who can beat Trump and fix things.”

But the evolution of the Democratic electorate, in which minority voters, young voters and women are likely to play a larger role than ever in selecting the nominee, is a factor that none are ignoring.

“Our party cannot run two white guys on the ticket. If you’re going to be the straight white male, then you have to have a running mate who’s not,” said Dean, who is remaining neutral in the primary. “I’m like 80 percent of the Democrats, I just want somebody who’s going to beat Trump.”

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