WASHINGTON — President Trump’s unconventional presidency has shattered all kinds of norms, but there’s one very local tradition that he seems to be reviving: Massachusetts presidential ambitions.
Massachusetts voters had only tenuous ties to the 2016 presidential crop — Hillary Clinton graduated from Wellesley College, and Bernie Sanders hails from neighboring Vermont. Now, thanks in part to the president’s deep unpopularity here, there’s a quintet of notable figures from the state showing up on political forecasters’ lists of possible 2020 contenders.
Count them: Senator Elizabeth Warren. Former governor Deval Patrick. Representative Seth Moulton. Even former secretary of state John Kerry and Representative Joe Kennedy III are often named. (And, as a bonus, some theorize — or fantasize — that Mitt Romney could jump in on the Republican side and offer a primary challenge to Trump, though the former Massachusetts governor is shedding his ties to the Commonwealth as he campaigns for the Senate in Utah.)
This bumper crop of local proto-candidates is part of a larger national trend, where Democrats are coming out of the woodwork to run for president. Some are inspired by Trump’s lack of experience, asking themselves, If he can do it, why not me? Others hope to take advantage of a leadership vacuum in the Democratic Party after decades of domination by Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.
The flood of potential interest reflects a positive environment for Democrats; they’ve got energy and a vulnerable opponent. But there’s a downside, too. The left lacks anyone of obvious stature to be a real front-runner in the run-up to the 2020 presidential race. By some counts, there are no fewer than three dozen Democrats actively pondering a run.
“You’re going to have to have a double-reinforced debate stage,” quipped David Axelrod, the director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics and former adviser to Obama.
“Are all these people actually, at the end of the day, going to run?” Axelrod asked. “It’s going to winnow down. But it’s not going to winnow down to three. It’s still going to be a large field.”
MSNBC host Chris Matthews has taken to using commercial breaks during his show “Hardball” to ask on-air guests how many candidates their home state is likely to produce. New York also has five who draw regular mention: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo and, yes, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
California also could field multiple candidates, including Senator Kamala Harris, billionaire Tom Steyer, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
While Massachusetts politicians have a history of national ambitions, the country has, since John F. Kennedy squeaked by Richard Nixon in 1960, rejected Massachusetts candidates in the end. Candidates from here who tried but didn’t make it to the White House include Senator Edward Kennedy in 1980, Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988, Kerry in 2004, and Romney in 2008 and 2012.
But political operatives in Massachusetts couldn’t recall a time when there were so many possible contenders all at once in the state.
“Trump is attacking so many fundamental progressive values,” said Doug Rubin, a Boston-based Democratic consultant who has worked for four of the five possible Massachusetts presidential candidates. “And in Massachusetts, our elected leaders are leaders on those issues. So it’s pretty natural that when those priorities are under attack, Massachusetts would be at the forefront of that fight.”
The logistics alone are fun to consider. Imagine five presidential headquarters in one seaside city? Consider the departure lounge at Logan Airport! The run-ins at restaurants! The search for office space! The inter-staff battles! “That would be awesome and unique and entertaining as hell,” offered Conor Yunits, a Democratic strategist in Boston.
None of the Massachusetts contenders have formally announced their candidacy. But some are dropping hints to known talkers or lurking in places like Iowa, prompting intense speculation about their ambitions.
Warren is by far the most obvious presidential prospect — and the only Massachusetts contender to register in polls of early primary contests. She’s already built the kind of national following among progressives needed to raise a presidential-sized war chest, and she’s been spreading her cash to others in the party.
“If she decides to run, Warren will be in a strong position to capitalize on a restive base that is looking for a champion to challenge the status quo,” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who ran Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. “With a strong fund-raising base and a national profile, she will clearly stand out.”
Brazile added: “But, the door is wide open. The base is also looking for new faces and fresh blood.”
Warren had a war chest of $14 million for her Senate race, by the last filing period at the end of last year. And she’s also provided about $330,000 to state Democratic parties since 2017, according to an aide familiar with her fund-raising.
Other boxes checked: A post-2016 book is out, and she has foreign policy experience via a new seat on the Armed Services committee. (That position has allowed her to share the occasional photo of herself aboard a military helicopter.)
Her message of fighting income inequality resonates with the left’s energized base. “Democrats will have the best chance of winning the presidency in 2020 by running on an Elizabeth Warren-style message of fighting for the little guys against entrenched power,” predicted Adam Green, the cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
But a Warren candidacy faces hurdles — Republicans are already trying to define her as the leader of the loony left, which could turn off moderates; her six years on the national stage means some of her newness has worn off, and 2016 showed the misogyny any female candidate faces.
Warren, who is up for reelection in Massachusetts this year, hasn’t dropped into early presidential states like New Hampshire or Iowa this presidential cycle. But her out-of-state travel has taken her to some of 2016’s battlegrounds, including Michigan (for an NAACP dinner), Georgia (to speak at the The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change), Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Though Warren has denied that she’s a 2020 presidential candidate, the former Harvard Law professor is careful to use present tense, which leaves open a future change in plans. During a town hall at the Boston Teachers Union Hall in Dorchester Thursday night, Warren said it is her “plan” to serve a full Senate term, should she win in November.
“I’m running for United States Senate in 2018,” she said. “I am not running for president of the United States.”
Others from Massachusetts aren’t being quite so coy.
“It’s on my radar screen,” Patrick told KCUR, a Kansas public radio station, recently when in town for an event with the very campaigny name: “An Evening with Deval Patrick: Reinvesting in America.”
He’s been conferring with members of the Democratic brain trust like Axelrod, who helped get Patrick elected governor in Massachusetts and is also part of Obama’s inner circle. He says he believes Patrick could provide a unifying message that would be a good antidote to Trump’s divisive rhetoric.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody better at campaigning than Deval Patrick,” Axelrod said, stressing his abilities in small settings. “He’s got good prospects.”
Patrick has a tactical advantage that few in the larger Democratic field possess: There’s a path for him through the early primary states, Axelrod said.
Patrick’s experience building support in his Massachusetts governor’s race via small sitdowns in living rooms across the Commonwealth translates well to Iowa, where similar skills are needed. He’s known in New Hampshire, which partially shares the Massachusetts media market. And he would probably hold an advantage in South Carolina, where the Democratic primary electorate is heavily African-American.
Axelrod cautioned that he’s not the “driving force” behind efforts to recruit Patrick and is just offering casual and free advice. He’s also informally spoken with Warren over the years, and he considers her a friend after they lived in the same building when he was in Washington.
“I find her personal story compelling,” Axelrod said, referring to her working class upbringing in Oklahoma. “She’s less powerful on the rat-a-tat-tat of Washington, where she’s more formulaic.”
Patrick is popping up in an assortment of pre-presidential places. He spoke at black churches in Alabama on behalf of Doug Jones, the Democrat who won an upset Senate race in Alabama. He touched down at Temple University in Philadelphia in March for a meet-and-greet with college Democrats there. And he was spotted in Washington at the recent conference organized by AIPAC, the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in the country.
Patrick didn’t reply to an e-mail seeking comment sent to his work address at the private equity firm Bain Capital. That employer could prove a weakness: Romney was a CEO and during the 2012 campaign and Democrats successfully painted Bain as a “vulture capital” firm responsible for buying up companies, dismantling them, selling them for parts, and leaving heartland workers unemployed.
And he has other points of potential vulnerability: His time as governor was rocked by management problems, from the flawed roll-out of the medical marijuana initiative to the costly crash of the state’s health care exchange website, to a new unemployment benefit system plagued by errors. All fodder for any Patrick opponent.
It’s also unclear whether Patrick has a natural base of support, beyond Obama acolytes who want him to run.
Under normal circumstances, the presidential list might stop there: a sitting senator and a former governor.
But attentive observers say nobody should count out Seth Moulton, a politician and Marine veteran of the Iraq War with a proven impatience for waiting one’s turn. Moulton, who in 2014 mounted a primary challenge to a sitting Democrat to win his Salem seat in the House of Representatives, is also making the moves one expects from a potential White House occupant.
He headed straight for Iowa a mere eight days after his September wedding. He said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last year that he’s “been approached” to run in 2020, though he didn’t say by whom. And he’s been busy working to get Democrats elected, including most recently campaigning in Pennsylvania for Conor Lamb, who won a seat in a district that Trump carried by 20 percentage points.
On the polar opposite end is John Kerry — a former secretary of state, senator, and presidential nominee who has been tantalizingly close to the White House and has acres of experience. He’s planning to spend time campaigning this year, stumping for more than a dozen friends and former staffers who will be on the ballot, which will only stoke more questions about his ambitions.
Two people close to Kerry, who didn’t want to be named, said the former secretary of state is mystified that Joe Biden is surging in early 2020 polls in New Hampshire while Kerry is rarely mentioned as a potential presidential contender. After all, Kerry, 74 , is a year younger than 75-year-old Biden, and Kerry has been crowned by the Democrats before.
But there are mixed messages from Team Kerry. A third person close to him cautioned not to read too much into idle comments from Kerry or his campaign schedule. “It would be out of character if he didn’t help Democrats, even as he forges a new path outside government,” the person said.
Representative Joe Kennedy, too, sealed his place on the presidential speculation list after delivering the official Democratic response to the State of the Union address. He recently drove Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke around Houston to campaign events. The move attracted the notice of the press and the ire of incumbent Senator Ted Cruz, who quipped that O’Rourke would be a better candidate in Massachusetts.
Kennedy’s reputation for biding his time makes a leap from the House to the White House less likely.
But headlines can be tantalizing, like the first half of this banner from Politico Magazine: “Kennedy Could Be the Democrats’ Best Hope.” (The second half of the headline noted that he might not want the job.)