After almost clearing the field in the 2016 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton went on to the most unexpected political loss since the “Dewey Defeats Truman” of 1948, if not since our country began. Many Democrats, both grassroots and establishment, have taken a strong message from this: don’t clear the field.
In the Virginia gubernatorial primary on June 13, assumed favorite Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam was challenged by former Rep. Tom Perriello. Eighteen Democrats ran for a vacant congressional seat in California. Eight Democrats even contested the nomination for a house seat in Montana, where a Democratic congressman hasn’t been elected since 1996.
As such, the primary for the 2020 presidential election is expected to be wild. Over a dozen elected officials and nationally known figures aren’t saying no when asked if they plan to enter the race. From senators Cory Booker, Chris Murphy, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders to governors Steve Bullock, Gavin Newsom (should he win the seat in 2018), and Kate Brown, to Mark Zuckerberg, the list of potential challengers is extensive.
But 2020 is old news. The list of candidates is extensive, yes, but exhausted. There’s no one else to add. The new prime ground for speculation is this: who will run in the 2032 Democratic primary?
The field is dense, so I’ll work to take you through some of the early front-runners. Let’s begin with Illinois’ own Congresswoman Cheri Bustos. On June 5, Bustos hosted a “Ladies who Launch” fundraiser to discuss women starting a role in public service. In attendance were other rising female stars of the Illinois Democratic Party, including Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Comptroller Susanna Mendoza. This move can be seen as an attempt to consolidate early support for a 2020 Senate run, assuming incumbent Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) retires. If not, she may make a statewide run for either Governor or senator in 2026. After representing the conservative Seventeenth District, Bustos’ ability to connect to the white working class will undoubtedly come in handy in contesting the Rust Belt states, which are bound to be further in the grips of economic decline and the opioid crisis by the time that 2032 rolls around.
Moving a little eastward, let’s check in on Ohio’s P.G. Sittenfeld. Sittenfeld, the youngest ever Cincinnati City Councilman, made a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2016, but lost the primary to former Gov. Ted Strickland 65-22 (who went on to lose resoundingly 58-37 to incumbent Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH)). Running for Senate at thirty-two is not something one plans on doing only once. With growing name recognition, he has a better chance of running statewide. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the arm of the Democratic Party aimed at races for the House, has apparently approached him as a candidate for Ohio’s First District in 2018. Whether he runs for the House in 2018 or 2020, for governor or senator in 2022, or for governor again in 2026, Sittenfeld is a solid candidate for Dems to watch in 2032.
On to the Peach State: Georgia. There was much talk by pundits of Georgia’s potential blue shift in 2016, and in the end, Trump’s 5.1% margin of victory was less than that of Ohio (8.1%), Iowa (9.4%), and Maine’s 2nd (10.2%), each of which President Obama won twice. If Georgia does swing blue at the statewide level, there are three candidates who could enter the 2032 field strong.
The first, Stacey Abrams, currently serves as the House Minority leader and recently declared her candidacy for governor in 2018. Gov. Nathan Deal (R) is term-limited, so the seat is open. Should she progress through the primary and 2018 is as strong as some Democrats hope, she may become the nation’s first female African-American governor. She, too, then would be term-limited out by 2026, allowing a possible Senate run before 2032.
The second Georgian is the grandson of the last Georgian president, with whom he shares a last name: Jason Carter. Carter, a former state Senator, lost a bid for Governor in 2014 to incumbent Gov. Deal 53-45 in a strong Republican year. Though he has declined to run in 2018, Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) will be seventy and up for reelection in 2020. With a strong Democrat at the top of the ticket and a powerful enough anti-Trump wave, we could have a Senator Carter on our hands. After two terms in the Senate, he would be sitting well-positioned in 2032 at the still-young age of fifty-six.
The third Georgian is Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Term-limited out in 2017, Reed has the time and energy to make rounds either in his congressional district or statewide before 2018 or 2020. There are two congressional districts in and around Atlanta that are incredibly Democratic-leaning and have Representatives in their seventies. When either Rep. John Lewis (GA-05) or David Scott (GA-13) retires, Reed would be a sensible candidate for either of their positions, having served not only as mayor of Georgia’s largest city, but also as state Representative and state Senator. From a deep blue congressional seat, Reed could mount bids for Senate (2020, 2022, 2026, 2028), or governor (2022, 2026) before mounting a 2032 presidential bid.
If you’re more in favor of traditional liberal strongholds, have I got a candidate for you: Rep. Joe Kennedy III. The last of the Kennedy clan holding high-level political office in 2017, Kennedy represents Massachusetts’s Fourth District, former home of bank-busting, gay pride-having Rep. Barney Frank. As grandson of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, grandnephew of both President John F. Kennedy and longtime Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, and son of former Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy II, Kennedy should have no problem winning the election in Massachusetts. The only reason he is listed with the 2032 candidates is the state’s incredibly popular Republican governor Charlie Baker and incredibly strong-willed senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey. If Sen. Markey retires in 2020, which is unlikely, Kennedy would enter as a clear front-runner if Rep. Seth Moulton (MA-06) does not run. More likely, Kennedy waits until Baker is term-limited out in 2022 and runs for the open seat. As is the same case, he would be a front-runner if Moulton does not run. Keep one eye on Seth Moulton, the other on Kennedy. They’re going to be running Massachusetts in a few years, and maybe the country after that.
Moulton, a 38-year-old retired Marine who won a primary against a scandal-ridden Democratic incumbent in 2014, has recently adopted the tactic of strengthening the Democratic message in and of itself, instead of attacking the current president. Keep it up, and he’ll be one hell of a contender. Come 2032, he could be a real contender in the New Hampshire primary, which borders his current congressional district.
Or perhaps the nod will go to a fresh face from a state made blue again. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) recently launched his campaign for Senate against conservative firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz (R). O’Rourke, a strong advocate for term limits, has served in the House of Representatives since he unseated incumbent Democrat Silvestre Reyes in 2012, pledging to serve no more than four terms. If he can unseat Cruz, he has pledged again to serve no more than two six-year terms in the Senate, putting him out of office, hypothetically, in 2030. A Democrat from the deep South with bipartisan leanings and general affability could be a strong contender.
I would be remiss to not mention Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and the focus of the New York Times article, “The First Gay President?” Buttigieg is young and incredibly popular, and has already garnered a national following after his run for DNC Chair. Furthermore, as mayor, he’s implemented many effective and progressive programs within South Bend, such as his urban renewal project “1000 Properties in 1000 days.” Already in his second term at age thirty-five, the logical next step for Buttigieg would be a run for Congress in Indiana’s second congressional district. Represented by Jackie Walorski (R), this district has been fairly competitive in presidential years (she won her first election to the seat, in 2012, by a one-point margin), and was represented by a Democrat, Representative (now Senator) Joe Donnelly, as recently as 2012. Mayor Pete could spend a few terms in Congress (become Rep. Pete), maybe run for Senate against freshman Sen. Todd Young (R) in 2022 or for Governor in 2024 or 2028.
Jim Himes (D-CT) is also a strong contender in his own right for 2032. After winning his fifth term in 2016, in what was once one of New England’s most reliably Republican districts, Himes was made chair of the New Democrats Coalition in the House, a center-left group that makes up almost a third of the House Democratic Caucus. He also sits on the House Intelligence Committee, giving him a lot of airtime during the Trump-Russia investigations. He could feasibly turn his increasing popularity into a Senate run in 2022 if Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D), who will be 77 at the time, does not seek a third term. From the Senate, he could run for Governor, as Lowell Weicker did in the late twentieth century, or simply run for President from the Senate as I’m sure Connecticut’s other Senator, Chris Murphy (D), is planning on doing in 2020.
As a bonus, we’ll consider the obvious front-runner for 2032: Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Though he will be a no doubt spry ninety in 2032, some of his more die-hard supporters may still be backing him.
These ten men and women from across the country will make great contenders for the 2032 Democratic primary. Cheri Bustos and Pete Buttigieg can duke it out in Iowa, while Seth Moulton and Joe Kennedy criss-cross the Granite State outwitting one another. Kasim Reed and Beto O’Rourke can spar in the Palmetto State primary, and P.G. Sittenfeld might just bet the farm on Super Tuesday. But before we get to 2032, we have to focus on what’s closer to us. No, not 2020. 2018. 2018 is the year Democrats and the Democratic Party need to be their best election since 2008, if not in recent memory. Cheri Bustos’s Trump-supporting district is on the DCCC’s most vulnerable list. Beto O’Rourke has to win his 2018 Senate race before he can take on the 2032 field. Mayor Pete, should he run for Congress, will need as much help as he can get winning in the drifting-right IN-02.
Everyone seems to be focusing on 2020. Whether it’ll be another Bernie vs. Hillary, or whether the primary will be more crowded than the 2016 Republican version. But the fights Democrats need to focus on are the ones in 2018, not 2020. If they actually want to move toward President Trump’s impeachment, they’ll have to take back many, many seats in the House, and their Senate map doesn’t look too promising. But that’s where the attention should lie. Don’t get me wrong, speculating about the far future is very fun. I had a good time guessing who’d run in 2032, but that’s not what’s important in 2017 and 2018.
Ridgley Knapp is a Section Editor for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate.