Women Shape 2020 Democratic field

June 6, 2017

Politico: Women Shape 2020 Democratic Field

By Gabriel Debenedetti

Democrats are still sifting through the lessons of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss. But with a handful of women who could be serious presidential contenders in 2020, they’re beginning to think about one question in particular: What will the election landscape look like for the next woman who wins the Democratic nomination?

It’s not an academic question. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are all drawing mention as top-of-the-ticket prospects and settling into distinctive lanes ahead of a primary that will begin in earnest in two years.

With so many top-tier women in the mix, operatives are already mapping out what a post-Clinton run looks like, how to navigate in such a historic field and how to position against a candidate like Donald Trump.

“You can’t overstate it,” said Democratic strategist Marcy Stech. “There’s no playbook for this.”

With many Democrats speculating about the effect that misogyny had on the result, party leaders are trying to better understand the politics of nominating another woman.

“I do think it played a role,” Clinton told CNN last month.

Eight percent of voters told Gallup in 2015 they would not want to vote for a woman, though many suspect the true number is higher due to respondents not wanting to reveal their preference. In the days after Clinton’s loss — when many commentators focused on the party’s failed outreach to working-class white men in the Rust Belt — some of her allies privately worried that Democrats would shy from nominating another woman.

“If electing a woman to the office of the presidency was easy, we would have already done it. It’s a mistake for any of us to think this is easy and behind us,” said EMILYs List President Stephanie Schriock. “We still have some obstacles to overcome: We still have a country where 23 states have not seen a woman governor, ever, of any party.”

Yet high-level Democratic operatives remain confident that Clinton’s treatment from Republicans was singularly brutal, a result of decades’ worth of history as a leading figure in the public eye — something that none of the four possible top-tier 2020 hopefuls have endured.

So while strategists are concerned about sexism weighing them down, the expectation is that they’d face a less furious reaction than Clinton.

“It is all too crazy, and easy for us to get scared off by all the brute misogyny,” said Susie Buell, a leading Democratic donor and friend of Clinton’s who hosted Warren in San Francisco last week. “But none of these woman have a 30-year smear campaign to overcome.”

So far, each of the four senators is following the standard pre-presidential blueprint — including going so far as to distance themselves from any public talk about a prospective run. They appeared at a Center for American Progress event in Washington last month that doubled as a 2020 showcase for pre-presidential contenders and have made the requisite early arrangements.

Klobuchar’s CAP appearance came shortly after a swing through Iowa. Both Gillibrand and Harris have kept in touch with some of their largest fundraisers. Warren traveled the country promoting her new book and raising unparalleled amounts of campaign cash ahead of her 2018 reelection bid.

And each has also started honing the messages that could form the center of their 2020 bids — pitches that fill the perceived holes in Clinton’s campaign. While Warren is well-known for her talk about economic fairness, Gillibrand focused her CAP speech on the importance of family leave policies. Harris — a Senate rookie making a name for herself by talking about immigration and civil rights in the Trump era — zeroed in on drug policy at that forum, while Klobuchar spoke about reaching rural voters.

One thing seems clear: After watching Clinton win the popular vote, party strategists believe it’s no longer necessary — or perhaps even wise — to pepper campaign addresses with explicit references to the potential candidates’ identities as women.

“With Hillary being the first woman on the scene in some ways, that was [her] thing,” said Amanda Renteria, Clinton’s political director in 2016. “But when there are a lot of women at the table, when you decide to run you have to think about, ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What specific thing do you bring to the table?’ [Being a woman] is not going to be the first thing anyone knows about you anymore. For anyone running now, that’s not enough.”

Clinton herself did not set out to run as “the woman candidate” in 2016, but she leaned heavily on the importance of electing the first female president by the time she clinched the Democratic nomination. Her team handed out “woman cards” as a fundraising gimmick that mirrored a go-to stump speech line, and she even planned her election night party at Manhattan’s Javits Center due to its enormous glass ceiling, expecting to shower the celebrating crowd with mock-glass confetti at the end of the night.

Yet in the party’s raw internal debates since Election Day over the usefulness of so-called “identity politics,” Clinton’s team has often been forced to defend this strategy, given that she lost men to Trump by a margin of 53 percent to 41 percent, according to exit polls — larger than Mitt Romney’s 7-point win among that group over Barack Obama in 2012.

And while many strategists and pollsters entered the 2016 cycle believing Clinton would carry most segments of women, few are baking that assumption into their analyses for any Democratic candidate — male or female — in 2020.

Trump, who won in 2016 even after numerous women came forth to accuse him of sexual misconduct, carried white female voters by 10 points, leaving Bill Clinton as the last Democrat to take that group.

Democratic campaign veterans expect less explicit “woman card” rhetoric next time around, balanced with an increased reliance on the new wave of anti-Trump energy coursing through female voters all around the country.

Female candidates may be uniquely positioned to talk about economic opportunity, say strategists who are desperate for 2020 candidates to improve the party’s standing with voters who feel left behind.

“We have to make the case in our politics for how electing someone is actually going to change someone’s life, and we can’t think of a better way than raising wages and putting money into peoples’ pockets,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. “And when it comes to mobilizing communities that sat out the last election because they didn’t think it mattered, we think women will be able to mobilize them to get out and vote.”

At first, the potential candidates likely won’t be able to lean as heavily as Clinton did on a trio of increasingly powerful advocacy groups that backed Clinton — EMILYs List, NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Each of the groups endorsed early in the last cycle, providing Clinton with considerable fundraising and organizing firepower during her primary contest against Bernie Sanders and in the general election.

EMILYs List — which works to elect women who defend abortion rights — was particularly active, launching a campaign to elect a female president starting in 2013 and taking over the email list of Clinton supporters that belonged to the Ready For Hillary super PAC before she announced her campaign.

While each of the groups holds more influence within the party than ever before, this time around they’re likely to be hesitant to endorse one woman over the others in a primary, said people close to the organizations. Still, those sources agreed, it’s too early to know for certain, since each of them is primarily focused on 2018’s midterms and resisting Trump at the moment.

None of them has started any pre-presidential effort yet, and no likely candidate is counting on their financial or political sway to help get them through what figures to be a crowded primary season — well over two dozen Democrats are looking at running in 2020.

But there is a widespread expectation that the boom in activism among Democratic women who reject Trump — if it can be sustained — will provide a boost to the potential 2020 hopefuls. Much of the party's organizational and fundraising energy has been driven by women since the women’s marches at the beginning of the year — marches in which all four potential candidates participated — and around issues like the White House’s health care proposal.

“We are seeing that a lot of women who were energized by Hillary are still very upset by her loss, and upset by the lack of real commitment by the Trump administration to issues that affect women and families,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a close Clinton ally. “It’s a long time from 2020, but what we’re seeing, as epitomized by the women’s marches all across the country on January 21st — the largest marches that ever occurred in our country — is a real appetite for being engaged.”

Indeed, that sense of mistreatment among Clinton’s loyal fans — coupled with the popular feeling in the Democratic grass roots that Clinton was somehow wronged by being denied the presidency despite winning the popular vote — could prove to be a powerful catalyst.

“It’s about time that there are multiple women on that list,” said former Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, whose brother, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, has also drawn attention as a potential 2020 contender. “Let’s hope the playing field will continue to even out in the years to come.”