Inside Story

Delicately dancing Democrats

Looking ahead to 2028 but with half an eye on 2024, presidential hopefuls are positioning themselves for a run

Lesley Russell 8 December 2023 2151 words

Best of the best? Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer arriving at the White House during a National Governors Association meeting in February. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Last week’s debate between Florida governor Ron DeSantis and his Californian counterpart, Gavin Newsom, was billed as a showcase of contrasts between how Republicans and Democrats govern in the states. It was nothing of the sort; it was the two men’s kick-off for the 2028 presidential campaign, still half a decade away.

Of course, DeSantis and Newsom would each willingly take up residency in the White House in January 2025. But DeSantis’s chances of victory in November next year appear sufficiently marginal that his presidential aspirations must now be deferred until 2028 — and that’s assuming his current campaign hasn’t already undermined that postponed effort, or will do so in coming months.

The consequences of a primary challenger to a sitting president are ingrained into the Democrats’ psyche. (The most recent, Ted Kennedy’s challenging of Jimmy Carter in 1980, was widely believed to have opened the way for Ronald Reagan’s win.) And Joe Biden has long cast himself as uniquely positioned to defeat Trump. Precedent and decorum require Newsom and anyone else with presidential ambitions to wait until Biden has concluded his presidency before they announce their aspiration to replace him.

There are, however, at least two elephants in the room that could upset the status quo, both in the upcoming election and in four years’ time. The first is the possibility that Trump will come under such legal duress that he is replaced as Republican nominee. Admittedly, a party so much in his thrall is unlikely to act in even those circumstances. And if Trump is elected in 2024, it isn’t far-fetched to assume he will subsequently refuse to leave the White House, try to declare himself president for life and/or undermine the 2028 elections. Former Representative Liz Cheney has warned of this threat.

The second, much larger elephant, is Biden’s age, which creates the possibility that an unforeseen health crisis could end his candidacy before November 2024 or his second term before 2028. Health issues aside, it’s just possible — perhaps after a family intervention over the Christmas break — that Biden will be persuaded not to run and instead declare that he will focus on managing current, pressing domestic and foreign policy issues to the end — as Lyndon Johnston did in March 1968. But it’s late in the election cycle to change candidates and doing so would raise fraught questions. Would Biden endorse his vice-president Kamala Harris? If so, would the kingmakers in the Democratic Party follow his lead?

Yet another elephant — for whatever reason dismissed by the media and the pundits — is that an unexpected health event is just as likely for Trump, only three years younger, visibly overweight and under severe stress as his business prospects falter in New York.

Trump’s departure from the scene before election day would most likely see Nikki Haley become the Republican nominee, although it’s not clear she could bring along the rusted-on, Make America Great Again gang she would need to win. Recent polling shows Haley leading Biden in a hypothetical head-to-head race by four points, but Trump leads Biden by a seven-point margin in the same poll.

If Biden dies or steps down in office during his second term, Kamala Harris automatically becomes president. Her nominee for vice-president would need to be confirmed by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress. (The last time this happened was after Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, when Gerald Ford nominated Nelson Rockefeller to serve as his vice-president.) If Biden serves out his term then the 2028 race for the Democratic nomination is wide open and Harris must join the field.

The line-up of Democrats eager for the presidential candidacy highlights both a recognition that any one of them could have the chance to step up ahead of 2028 — an incentive to strengthen their national profiles — and the fact that there’s a wealth of well-credentialled candidates. “So many people, it’s breathtaking,” says veteran Democratic strategist James Carville. “The level of talent in the Democratic Party in 2023 — and I say this with great confidence — is as high as any political party has ever had in my lifetime.”

Carville goes on to list party figures including state governors Josh Shapiro (Pennsylvania), Andy Beshear (Kentucky), Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan), Jared Polis (Colorado) and Roy Cooper (North Carolina), senators Raphael Warnock (Georgia) and Mark Kelly (Arizona) and former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu. Other names can be added to that list: New Jersey senator Cory Booker, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar and transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg, who all ran in 2020, along with Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker and, of course, Newsom. Still others are likely to emerge, some with real chances and some who would be very long shots.

It’s impossible to predict four years ahead of time who will win a presidential race. Barack Obama, for example, was just a first-term senator when he first came to prominence courtesy of his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. As 2007 ended, his chances against Hillary Clinton, the early frontrunner, were considered slim. But in January 2008 he won the surprise victory in the Iowa primary that began to alter the contours of the campaign. Then African Americans, having previously looked to Clinton and hesitant about Obama, delivered him a stunning victory in South Carolina. After that he began to break away, gaining delegates and undermining Clinton’s claims of superior electability.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Senate — which has been called the “presidential incubator” and the “presidential nursery” — is a major launching pad for presidential contenders. In recent generations it propelled John F. Kennedy, Obama and Biden into the White House (but didn’t guarantee the success of the Bob Dole/Jack Kemp team in 1996). These days senators risk being tagged with the unfavourability ratings voters from both parties assign to Congress as a whole, now the highest in nearly four decades. Those voter sentiments might not bode well for Klobuchar (who has been in the Senate since 2007) and Booker (since 2013); both Kelly and Warnock are relative newcomers, having taken up their seats in 2020 and 2021 respectively.

State governors, especially those from the larger states, bring to presidential races their governing records. Seventeen of forty-five American presidents (counting two-timer Grover Cleveland only once) had been state governors. In the fifty-nine quadrennial elections held to date, governors have captured a total of fifty-five presidential nominations; the most recent are Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who all ran hard and successfully on their records in that job.

Once you factor in other key determinants of a viable presidential candidature like personality, ideology, fundraising capabilities, and the ability to gain early momentum by doing well in early primaries (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina) and then win in the states with large numbers of electoral college delegates (California, Texas, Florida), and then add — dare we say it — appearance, sexual orientation, race and religion, the potential winners’ list among the governors looking to run becomes much shorter.

Three people stand out: Shapiro, Beshear and Whitmer. Newsom could be added to this list — there is no denying his name recognition, donor base and political talent — but he comes with more baggage than the other three. California is troubled by an economic malaise; Newsom has pursued a salacious love life; his popularity in the state is falling. Regardless, and despite his claims to be campaigning for Biden, Newsom almost certainly sees himself as the leading candidate, and he has been busy playing that role by making official trips, with photo opportunities, to China, Israel and a series of prominent events in red states.

Having only taken office this year, Shapiro is still in the honeymoon phase of his gubernatorial stint. It remains to be seen whether the fifty-year-old moderate has staying power. Previously state attorney-general, he gained prominence by handily beating far-right Trump-backed Republican Doug Mastriano in the governor’s race by a fifteen-point margin, becoming the first Pennsylvania Democrat to succeed a Democratic incumbent in sixty-four years.

Pennsylvania’s status as a critical swing state has only enhanced Shapiro’s profile in national circles. He is seen as an ambitious politician with a history of playing the long game, as evidenced by the fact that he was a keynote speaker at the New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention in September.

Beshear became a Democratic hero in November when he won a second term as governor of Kentucky, defying the usual political leaning of his red state. The forty-five-year-old, who was first elected as governor in 2019, has emulated his father, also a two-time Kentucky governor. In his first term Beshear was credited with having responded well to a series of natural disasters — the devastating tornadoes and horrific floods that ravaged parts of Eastern Kentucky — and the pandemic.

Beshear’s opponent, Daniel Cameron, the first African American to be elected attorney-general of Kentucky, was backed by Trump. Beshear blunted Cameron’s strategy by painting himself as above the partisan fray, touting an “economy on fire” and his commitment to “Team Kentucky” and public education, and warning about the future of abortion rights under the Republicans. These messages resonated well with voters; it’s an approach that should also work well on the national stage.

Whitmer, fifty-two, has been governor of Michigan, an important swing state that voted Trump in 2016 and 2020, since 2019. She was re-elected in 2022, winning by nearly eleven points over her Republican opponent. Her signature causes are infrastructure, healthcare and abortion access. With Democrats in control of the governor’s office and both the state’s legislative chambers following last year’s election, Whitmer has pushed through tax cuts, gun control measures and protections for abortion and gay rights. She has served as one of the vice-chairs of the Democratic National Committee since January 2021.

Whitmer was recently described in the Atlantic as having a “foul-mouthed irreverence, goofy humour, and ability to pound beers and disarm adversaries.” That may not play in Peoria or Washington, DC, but one thing is clear: she knows how to deal with Trump and his ilk. As a target of his nasty rhetoric, she has accused Trump of helping to incite, and later condoning, an October 2020 plot to abduct her. The planned kidnap by a group of men associated with the Wolverine Watchmen, a Michigan-based militia group furious over tough Covid-19 rules and perceived threats to gun ownership, was thwarted by the FBI and undercover agents — something for which Trump took credit, while simultaneously downplaying the threat to Whitmer.

Biden’s campaign team vetted her as a possible running mate in 2020 and Biden confirmed she was on his shortlist in March that year. According to reports, Whitmer removed herself from consideration, urging Biden to choose a Black woman instead — a smart and thoughtful move at a time when the nation was still in the midst of a reckoning over race and inequality following the death of George Floyd at the hands of white police.

Whitmer might be the best of the three, but she faces one clear obstacle — she’s a woman. On that basis alone she would be ruled out of consideration as Harris’ vice-presidential nominee if one were needed.

Is America finally ready for a woman as president? A paper published on the website of the distinguished political scientist Larry Sabato offers an in-depth analysis of the obstacles female candidates face on their paths to the White House. On balance, it finds, Democrats are more likely to support female candidates than are Republicans. A PRRI poll found in 2016 that more than two-thirds of Donald Trump supporters believe society as a whole has become “too soft and feminine.” And Trump has used the worst aspects of masculinity as a political strategy.

With each of the potential Democratic candidates already receiving donor support, it’s useful to look at where the money is going. Whitmer, Newsom and Pritzker have all recently launched national political groups. Whitmer has created a federal political action committee called “Fight Like Hell” to boost abortion rights as a plus for Biden and congressional candidates next year, giving her a visible role in the 2024 campaign. Newsom has “Campaign for Democracy,” which is focused on gun control; Pritzker’s “Think Big America” aims to protect reproductive rights and fight extremism.

For the moment, all of the Democrats who harbour presidential ambitions (hidden and not so hidden) must focus on the task at hand — getting Biden elected next year. Everyone’s political ambitions will end up in the dustbin if Trump is re-elected.

An opinion piece for CNN Politics artfully describes the current low-key jockeying as a “delicate and sometimes uncomfortable dance.” For the next eleven months, it goes on, “they are stuck being intriguing but not enticing, stoking flames but not fanning them. That task has been made more fraught when their very existence reminds voters — who have made consistently clear that they want another alternative to an eighty-one-year-old president — about what could have been.” •