Four Key Senators Shift 2020 Presidential Planning Into High Gear

Senator Kamala Harris of California visited volunteers during a get-out-the-vote phone bank event in Greenville, S.C., in October.CreditCreditTravis Dove for The New York Times

Senator Kamala Harris of California is eyeing Baltimore or Atlanta as a possible base of operations for her likely 2020 presidential bid and is close to bringing on a top aide to run her campaign.

Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, has completed a detailed review of her writings and political record to identify potential vulnerabilities, and her aides have been scouting headquarters near Boston.

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey has been interviewing possible campaign managers, as well as strategists who could run his Iowa caucus effort.

And Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has been reaching out to more women than men for campaign roles, though she is expected to pick a man — her current top aide — to manage a campaign likely to be based near her upstate New York home.

These four high-profile Democratic senators are poised to enter the 2020 presidential race in the next several weeks, advisers and people briefed by their associates say, after spending December finalizing the outlines of their political operations, selecting top campaign staff and conducting research into their own political weak spots. In some cases, they may first announce the creation of presidential exploratory committees to ramp up their fund-raising and hiring efforts, before launching their candidacies more formally in the following weeks.

The speed of the senators’ efforts reflects intense political pressure to establish themselves as leading candidates in a Democratic field that could get crowded, fast. All four are likely to spend considerable time and money in 2019 competing with one another to answer the strong yearning from Democrats for new leadership, and they don’t want to lose a step to a rival fresh face, such as Representative Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas Senate candidate who has been the focus of intense speculation in recent weeks as a potential presidential candidate.

“Between the first of January and the middle of February, it would not surprise me for us to see six to eight people say, ‘I’m jumping in,’” said Jaime Harrison, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman who now serves as associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He said he has heard in recent weeks from an assortment of likely candidates, including several senators and mayors.

Senator Elizabeth Warren delivered her re-election victory speech in November in Boston.CreditCJ Gunther/EPA, via Shutterstock

For the Senate foursome, moving quickly into the race is also a pre-emptive effort to undercut the early advantages of a duo of universally known contenders, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who may enter the race in the coming months. Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders would start off with important advantages, including existing networks of support among early-state activists and party donors, and the stature to generate impressive displays of support at early rallies.

But as white men, Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders and Mr. O’Rourke do not reflect the gender and racial diversity of many Democratic candidates and swaths of the electorate that dominated the 2018 midterms. Ms. Harris, Ms. Warren, Ms. Gillibrand and Mr. Booker, by contrast, would instantly make the 2020 Democratic field the most diverse array of presidential candidates in history. And they might well scramble the early polling leads held by Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders, who benefit from strong name recognition but would be in their late 70s by Election Day 2020, at a moment when some in the party are agitating for generational change.

The four senators hope that jumping into the race early will give them some organizational advantages in a contest that will almost certainly grow to more than a dozen candidates.

This kind of early frenetic activity — almost two years before the election — has happened before in primaries without a clear front-runner. At this time four years ago, many Republicans began preparing campaigns, wooing supporters and tacitly permitting fund-raising by allies in the wide-open race for the 2016 nomination, a contest that would ultimately attract more than a dozen candidates within months.

Already, at least two of the senators have nearly settled on close political lieutenants to serve as campaign managers, turning to male aides with whom they have deep and trusting personal relationships. Ms. Gillibrand is eyeing Jess Fassler, her current top aide, who is leaving his role in the Senate early in 2019, as a leading contender to manage her campaign. Ms. Harris is expected to name Juan Rodriguez, who helmed her campaign for the Senate in 2016, as her manager.

In a further sign of how developed her plans are, Ms. Harris’s aides are close to selecting Baltimore or Atlanta for her headquarters, according to people who have met with her team. She is likely to maintain a sizable office on the West Coast, perhaps in her native Oakland, but her political advisers have concluded that for practical reasons it is essential that she have a base in the Eastern Time zone.

Ms. Warren is expected to install Dan Geldon, her former chief of staff who was once her student at Harvard Law School and left her Senate office to plan her likely campaign, in a senior role directing campaign strategy. She has a head start on staffing: During the midterm campaign, Ms. Warren deployed staff to the four early primary states and a number of general election battlegrounds to elect other Democrats. Many of those organizers stayed involved after her re-election, leaving her with a staff of several dozen total.


Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey is one of several Democratic senators who are preparing possible presidential bids that could be announced in the coming weeks.CreditAl Drago/Getty Images

To keep those staffers employed into 2019, Ms. Warren needs to raise campaign dollars — a situation that places pressure on her to quickly jump into the race.

Like Ms. Warren, Ms. Harris has completed a substantial research project into her own political vulnerabilities, people in touch with their advisers said. Ms. Harris’s team has scrutinized her paper trail in public office, including her service as California’s state attorney general and San Francisco’s district attorney, while Ms. Warren has conducted an exhaustive review including her academic writings and Senate votes.

Mr. Booker and his chief of staff, Matt Klapper, have interviewed a number of potential campaign managers in recent months, according to people who have spoken with his team. Addisu Demissie, who managed Mr. Booker’s first Senate race and led Gavin Newsom’s campaign for governor of California this year, is most widely mentioned as a presidential campaign manager, and has been advising Mr. Booker on other potential hires.

Mr. Booker’s team has also been in touch with Democratic operatives in Iowa for leadership roles there, including Michael Frosolone, the top political strategist for the Democratic caucus in the Iowa House. He’s expected to base his campaign in Newark, where he served as mayor. Steve Phillips, an influential San Francisco-based Democratic donor, says he’s already collected $4 million to fund a new super PAC to boost Mr. Booker’s expected campaign.

The number of male operatives under consideration for campaign manager posts has raised concerns among some female Democratic strategists who hoped the diversity of the 2020 field would prompt more hiring of female and minority staffers for senior roles.

“You have to have a diverse leadership team, and that, more than anything, is something that these campaigns have to be paying attention to,” said Anne Caprara, a Democratic operative who is now working as chief of staff to the incoming governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, after running his campaign. “When it comes to women and women of color, so many of them are going to want to see that the candidate is not just hiring women but really paying attention to them when they’re giving advice.”

The focus on staff diversity reflects not only the influence of the #MeToo movement on Democratic politics but the demands of a party that has shifted to the left during the Trump era, as well as a changing primary map. While the predominantly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire will still technically host the first nominating contests, an increase in the popularity of early voting means Democrats will begin casting ballots in more diverse states like California and Georgia during those early elections.


Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is interviewing more women than men for possible presidential campaign roles.CreditErin Schaff for The New York Times

Mr. O’Rourke, for one, has mentioned to political strategists that he’d like to hire a female campaign manager.

Those close to the four senators caution that no decisions on hiring and organizing will be made until the politicians make a final call about jumping into the race. In fact, formally offering a job could trigger campaign finance reporting requirements mandating that they file a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission — a step no candidate wants to take before they’re ready to announce a bid.

Several other Democrats have indicated they will make up their minds early in 2019. Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who recently joined the Democratic Party, has been conducting polling and other research to test his prospects, and has suggested he will decide on the race in January or February. And Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and his team have interviewed at least 80 people for potential campaign roles, settling on a veteran adviser of his own, Bradley Komar, to lead his effort if he enters the race.

“There’s no benefit to being scared of your own shadow. We want to form the best team possible if he decides to run,” Mr. Komar said. “That’s part of the decision making: Can we get the team together?”

A number of other influential politicians may be slower to decide on a presidential race, including Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, as well as Mr. O’Rourke. All have been asking for advice about the presidential campaign, and supporters of Mr. Brown and Mr. O’Rourke have formed committees to draft them into the race.

Even for these deliberating Democrats, however, there is a sense that the pressure to decide may escalate quickly after the holidays, as other Democrats begin to compete more openly for the hearts of primary voters.

Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio, a co-chairwoman of the Committee to Draft Sherrod Brown, said she believed Mr. Brown would have to decide on a presidential race within the first quarter of 2019 — and start campaigning in Iowa even sooner.

“I think he needs to be in Iowa in January, frankly,” said Ms. Whaley, adding that her group might begin running ads for Mr. Brown in the leadoff primary states. “We recognize that Sherrod doesn’t have much name recognition in the first four, so we’ll probably be doing some digital work around those.”

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4 Key Senators Shift Planning For 2020 Race Into High Gear

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