The 2020 Democratic National Circus: The Outsiders

With the midterms behind us, it’s full steam ahead now to the upcoming Democratic primaries for the 2020 presidential nomination. Of course, the campaigning for that august honor started on November 9, 2016 (one can never be too early) but now that the “Christmas in July” feel of it is shed, there’s no more need for being coy.

Our previous installment focused on those most likely to be the establishment picks for the 2020 election. But if the 2016 battle taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. And the Democratic Party is ripe for an outside the party structure challenge, backed by a far-left base ready to avenge the loss of Bernie Sanders in those rigged primaries.

Who are the likely candidates for such a challenge?

Speaking of Sanders, there is little doubt that the socialist senator from Vermont is a frontrunner. He is the one other candidate who rivals former Vice President Joe Biden’s poll numbers, especially in the crucial early state of New Hampshire. And he still maintains a loyal following after his rigged defeat in 2016.

Alternative history and speculation about whether Sanders would have won in 2016 is fascinating. As even supporters of President Trump would admit, Bernie might narrowly have defeated Trump. His message also targeted voters fed up with the traditional politics of Left and Right who were looking for something different in an outsider with populist appeal. What’s more, Bernie had the passionate support of young voters. With his labor union bona fides, he might have understood the need to campaign hard in the Rust Belt (while Hillary Clinton simply took those votes for granted). On issues such as trade, for example, Sanders and Trump practically sound the same (though their reasoning differs).

Just as trade might have been the issue that could have won 2016 for Sanders, it may end up being the issue that secures President Trump’s reelection in 2020. Beginning with Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his successful renegotiation of NAFTA, and his hard bargaining with China and the European Union for greater trade concessions, Trump has neutralized the issue.

Sanders’ luster generally has faded over the past two years. Another run in 2020 would be more of an attempted remake of his 2016 crusade rather than an actual “revolution.” And everyone knows the sequel is rarely better than the original. Perhaps that explains why the Democrats’ new rising socialist star, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has refused to endorse a possible Bernie 2020 campaign. While Bernie may still be useful as a campaigning tool, the chances of him actually being the candidate grow smaller and smaller by the day.

A Major or a Minor Candidate?
Less than a week after the midterms, a second somewhat serious Democratic candidate announced his bid for the 2020 election: Retired Army Major and West Virginia state senator Richard Ojeda.

Ojeda’s candidacy, if it receives enough attention, could get traction. The 25-year veteran, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, was elected to the West Virginia State Senate in 2016. He was the losing Democratic nominee for the state’s 3rd Congressional District in 2018, losing to Republican Carol Miller by a 12-point margin and failing to flip the seat from red to blue.

As relatively uninteresting as those facts may sound, his platform and rhetoric is a different song entirely: He voted for Trump in 2016, and is now running to try to persuade Democratic voters who backed the president last time instead to support his candidacy. He already has proven his potential for crossover support, having won his state senate district by 18 points in the same year that Trump carried it at 59 percent.

Having been described as a populist, his platform was recently examined in a video by NowThis. The 48-year-old state legislator pledges, among other things, to support working-class citizens, protect Social Security, get big money out of politics, take care of veterans, and make members of Congress live on the same healthcare as their constituents. He is also pro-life and, naturally, supports the coal industry.

The fact that at least half of those things are similar to President Trump’s 2016 platform is not a coincidence. As a Democrat with military experience, Ojeda can be compared to other such Democratic figures who supported Trump in 2016, and in fact proved crucial to sustaining his winning coalition, such as General Michael Flynn and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb.

Of course, Ojeda still must overcome some serious obstacles to run for president as a Democrat. Aside from the massive target on his back over his vote for Trump, he will have to overcome the name recognition issue and the nearly insurmountable wave of far-left social justice rhetoric and identity politics that threatens to overshadow his working-class message.

Battle of the Billionaires
If Bernie burns out and Major Ojeda turns out to be nothing more than a Private Joker, then the “outsider” sect of the Democratic 2020 field may have no choice but to turn to a model candidate who more closely resembles President Trump in net worth: Billionaire activists.

For this category, two men in particular stand out. The first is former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been the source of consistent speculation for every presidential election since 2008. Bloomberg is a regular Charlie Crist or Lincoln Chafee, having switched political affiliations about as often as Eliot Spitzer changes socks. Bloomberg was a lifelong Democrat until he first ran for mayor, winning in 2001 and 2005 by landslides as a Republican, and then narrowly winning a third term in 2009 as an independent. He pledged lifetime loyalty to the Democratic Party this month.

Like Sanders and Avenatti, Bloomberg has been singled out as a supposedly formidable candidate by yet another top Trump ally: Original 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Like Trump, Bloomberg’s vast fortune of nearly $52 billion would make it easy for him to self-fund his campaign and claim the mantle of “independence.”

But like former eBay CEO Meg Whitman in her doomed California gubernatorial bid in 2010, Bloomberg’s immense wealth could actually hurt his chances by making him seem out of touch, especially with a far-left base that is increasingly averse to the “billionaire boys’ club.” Combined with his past of more moderate political stances and party switches, it would be hard for Bloomberg to earn the support both of the establishment and the party’s increasingly hard-left base.

The other billionaire who could give Trump a run for his money is California venture capitalist Tom Steyer, who has spent the better part of a decade pouring his fortune into environmental causes (that would, if supported, just so happen to enrich the companies in which he’s invested).

More recently, Steyer has toured the country (and the nation’s op-ed pages) making the case for Trump’s impeachment. With a loyal following in the state that has become the home of #TheResistance, Steyer could be a sort of hidden gem among the “outsider” crowd.

Unlike Bloomberg, with his history of moderate stances and party-switching, Steyer realistically could earn the support of the far-left base.

Perhaps most notably, President Trump seems already to have acknowledged the strong chance that one or both of these men could run. As such, he indirectly has addressed the matter in the best way possible: By preemptively ridiculing both potential candidates’ chances in the primaries.

Trump said that if Bloomberg ran, the Democrats would “eat him up.” He then took to Twitter to call Steyer “a crazed & stumbling lunatic who should be running out of money pretty soon,” while also saying that he might be one of the worst candidates in an already “bad” field.

Outside the Realm of Possibility?
The battle for the outsider mantle will probably be more intense and more divided than the battle for the establishment’s nod.

Ideally, the grassroots base would have all the momentum going into the 2020 field. Like Trump in 2016, any outsider candidate for this party’s nomination would run by criticizing a party that can’t stop losing, and thus promise to bring back some electoral and policy wins. The scandal-ridden party brass should be on the run, cowering in fear of an outsider that they can’t control any more than the GOP can control Trump.

But, just as with the GOP field in 2016, the sheer number of candidates and subsequent division could also doom any outsider candidate or faction in the primaries. Whether it’s the brawling billionaires or the raging porn lawyer, too many outside candidates producing too much buzz could only ensure that none of them defeat whichever candidate has the collective backing of the party itself (which, in this case, appears to be Kamala Harris).

Are there any candidates who are perhaps somewhere in the middle, and thus could actually strike a sort of balance and perhaps stand a greater chance? Perhaps. Who are they? We’ll explore those candidates in the third and final part of this series.

Photo Credit: Mark Makela/Getty Images

About Eric Lendrum

Eric Lendrum graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was the Secretary of the College Republicans and the founding chairman of the school’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter. He has interned for Young America’s Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the White House, and has worked for numerous campaigns including the 2018 re-election of Congressman Devin Nunes (CA-22). He is currently a co-host of The Right Take podcast.

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