WASHINGTON — Bernie Sanders launched a nine-state tour of the country. Elizabeth Warren is helping to elect Democrats all over the nation. Amy Klobuchar was in Iowa this past weekend.
Each of these big names is making the familiar moves of a candidate possibly eyeing the White House. There’s just one thing they need to do first: Win reelection to their current jobs in the Senate.
With a potentially crowded Democratic field looming in the 2020 primaries, several senators on the ballot next month are hinting more brazenly at their national ambitions than is usually politically acceptable.
“The norm is, you run for one office at a time,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “You basically disavow any inclination or enthusiasm for running for something else.”
But these do not feel like normal times, and these Senate candidates’ decision to buck conventions could foreshadow more unorthodoxy to come in a Democratic field shaped not just by President Trump as a looming opponent but also by the vivid memories of how his unusual candidacy upended the wide Republican field of 2016.
“As much as Democrats express their contempt for President Trump,” Scala said, “it’ll be very interesting, when it comes to campaigning to be his opponent, how many of them adopt his tactics, or show relative disregard for the norms that have governed the process in the past, recognizing that something has changed permanently about the way we nominate presidents.”
Warren has been by far the boldest of the senators facing a 2018 challenge in her willingness to express an interest in the presidency.
On Sept. 29, she told voters at a town hall in Holyoke that she would take a “hard look” at running for president after the midterm elections, bringing her ambitions for higher office to the fore just five-and-a-half weeks before asking voters to give her six more years to perform her current job.
“I want to be transparent with the people of Massachusetts,” Warren told the Globe. “I gave as open an answer as I know how.”
If her frankness risks suggesting to voters that she is not solely committed to her job in the Senate — as her Republican opponent Geoff Diehl continually charges — that is a risk she is willing to take.
And not all of it has gone well. Warren told the Globe on Oct. 11 that she would be focused on her race and helping Democrats win back the majority through the midterms. But, days later, she released a DNA test showing she has a distant indigenous relative — a move that seemed unrelated to either effort.
What appeared to be an attempt to clear the decks ahead of the expected presidential run instead generated days of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.
The others have been more coy when their 2020 plans are broached, hewing closer to traditional political lines.
Earlier this month, Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator, was asked in a debate if she would promise to serve a full six-year term, and she had a clever answer ready.
“I have said very clearly I plan to keep representing Minnesota,” said Klobuchar, a response that gives her space to either represent the Land of 10,000 Lakes in Congress or from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Sanders, when asked The Question, touted success in his previous presidential bid and didn’t answer it directly. “We started in that campaign at, I think, three or five percent in the polls,” the Vermont senator told CNN, referring to his attempt to secure the 2016 Democratic nomination. “We ended up winning 22 states and 13 million votes.’’
He also praised a book written by his former campaign manager Jeff Weaver titled “How Bernie Won.”
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a fourth 2020 prospect who is up for reelection on Nov. 6, pivoted to the midterms when The New York Times asked her about her plans. “For me, it’s all about 2018,” she replied.
On a stop in New Hampshire, Gillibrand was more definitive. “I want to be senator for the next six years,” she told the paper, while still raising questions about why she was in an important presidential primary state just before her own election. And in a debate with her GOP opponent Chele Farley on Thursday, she doubled down on the commitment when asked about her presidential ambitions. “I will serve my six-year term.”
Yet all these candidates are making out-of-state moves that draw a contrast to their professed lack of interest in the presidential race.
The itinerary for Sanders’s nine-state tour takes him to three of the four early-voting states of Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada. He will also hit Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, Colorado, and California. And he announced that he’ll make two stops in New Hampshire next Sunday.
But he’ll be back in Vermont Monday for two debates.
Earlier this month Warren appeared in a packed university space in Morrow, Ga., to stump for Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate in a high-profile governor’s race that has become a training ground for prospective 2020 presidential candidates.
“They may have the money,” Warren said of Republicans. “They may have the power right now, but there’s a whole lot more of us than there is of them.”
A few days later, Warren appeared as a senator seeking reelection. She was in Roxbury, with the constituents whose votes she needs on Nov. 6. She has also debated Diehl and attended rallies with voters.
It helps that none of these four is in a competitive race: The Cook Political Report says each is in a “solid” Democratic state. And three of them — Sanders, Klobuchar, and Gillibrand — won their last elections six years ago with more than 65 percent of the vote.
The 2020 election is still two years away, and it is the senators who are up for reelection then, such as Cory Booker of New Jersey and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who would face an even starker decision about whether to run for reelection, for president, or both.
Some politicians have doubled up on the ballot before. In 2008, Joe Biden won reelection to his Senate seat, representing Delaware, and the vice presidency. In 2012, Paul Ryan was Mitt Romney’s pick for vice president and ran for reelection to his House seat. And Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky ran for president in the 2016 Republican primary and for reelection the same year.
Others have scrupulously avoided the appearance of doing both. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida pledged to become a private citizen if he lost his 2016 presidential bid. Then after he lost the presidential primary, he changed course and jumped into the race for reelection.
“When Rubio was looking at 2016, he felt that if he was running for president with reelection as a fallback, he wouldn’t do either well,” Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who advised him at the time, said. “If you’re running for president, you must not be worried about your own reelection because you literally can’t do both.”
And for the possible 2020 contenders facing Senate reelection in November, the presidential calls are hard to ignore.
There was a bump in interest for Klobuchar after her questions during hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Sanders remains one of the most popular politicians in the country. And Gillibrand has been an outspoken supporter of the #MeToo movement, propelling calls for her to run.
Hours before Kavanaugh was confirmed on Oct. 6, Warren stepped up to a microphone on Capitol Hill in front of hundreds of protesters.
“Now is the time to turn our hurt into power,” said the Massachusetts senator, urging Democrats to vote in the midterm elections.
One protester called out with a loftier goal: “Run for president!”