Age, Change and the Democrats’ Challenge

Is the Democratic race for president — and possibly even the 2020 general election — going to boil down to a choice of aged front-runners (or incumbent) versus a younger challenger who represents generational change? It’s certainly possible.

President Donald Trump, the oldest person ever to assume the presidency when he was inaugurated in 2017, turns 72 in June. It wouldn’t be without precedent if Democratic voters — and eventually the electorate as a whole — saw the 2020 election as an opportunity to make a statement about the future and generational change.

It has already happened a couple of times in recent memory.

President Dwight Eisenhower left office in 1961 at the age of 70 after serving eight years in the White House. His successor, Democrat John F. Kennedy, was just 43 when he was elected president the previous year.

The contrast between Eisenhower and Kennedy was obvious, as was the charisma gap between the Massachusetts Democrat and his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, who was only 47 but represented continuity.

Thirty-two years later, in 1992, another Democrat ran for the White House on a message of generational change. Bill Clinton was 46 when he was elected president, making him the first baby boomer in the White House.

The Republican incumbent Clinton defeated, President George H.W. Bush, was 68 when he sought re-election. He had also served two terms as vice president under Ronald Reagan, whose presidency ended when he was 77 years old.

Again, there was an obvious charisma gap between Clinton and Bush.

History repeats?

Now, 28 years after that 1992 election, Democrats face a quandary: Do they nominate a senior citizen or someone much younger who can portray the sitting president as part of the past?

The answer, to some extent, depends on the kind of campaign Democrats want to wage. Do they want a contest about ideology, issues and policy or about change, hope and character?

Four announced Democratic hopefuls are old enough to collect Social Security: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (age 77), Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren(69), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (68) and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (67). And that doesn’t count former Vice President Joe Biden(76), who is widely expected to enter the race.

On the other hand, two hopefuls are under 40 — South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (37) and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (37) — and three others are in their 40s: former HUD Secretary Julián Castro (44), former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (46) and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (49).

Six announced candidates and potential hopefuls fall between the two extremes: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (52), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (52), Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (54), California Sen. Kamala Harris (54) and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (62).

Of that latter group, Harris offers the greatest contrast with Trump, a younger, female, multiracial Californian.

The Feb. 24-27 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked voters how comfortable and enthusiastic they would be with a potential nominee who had certain characteristics.

Only a third of those responding said they would be comfortable or enthusiastic with someone over 75 years of age. On the surface, that’s not great news for older hopefuls, especially Biden and Sanders.

But there is no way of knowing how many voters are so uncomfortable that they wouldn’t vote for a candidate in his or her mid-70s, especially since recent ballot tests have shown the two oldest names tested, Biden and Sanders, leading the pack.

Not the norm

But Trump is not Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan or George H.W. Bush.

He is relatively new to elective politics, and he has a certain kind of charisma — at least to about 40 percent of the public. And unlike Nixon in 1960 and Bush in 1992, Trump doesn’t yet represent the status quo, even though he is the incumbent.

His entire message is about disruption, destroying the “deep state” and sticking it to the elite and the establishment.

That means Trump might not be as vulnerable to some form of “change” message as Nixon and Bush 41 were.

There is another side to that coin, of course. Polls consistently show a plurality (often a majority) of voters won’t vote to re-elect Trump next year, and the enthusiastic response among Democrats to O’Rourke and Buttigieg can’t be ignored.

Neither man is a typical politician or presidential hopefuls, and they have different styles. The Texan asks a lot of questions but provides few answers (at this point), while Buttigieg has been more combative against Trump and explicit about his views and personal values.

Harris remains the most interesting case. The California senator (and former state attorney general) is relatively new to national politics, having been elected in 2016, and has plenty of charisma.

Half Tamil (Indian) and half Jamaican, she is a woman of color who projects a knowledgeable and substantive view of politics and policy.

She will certainly have great appeal among women and nonwhites, two demographic groups that are crucial to winning her party’s nomination next year and to turning out base voters next November.

But would she do better than Hillary Clinton did among white, working-class voters, particularly in the Great Lakes states?

Depending on the economy, the Democrats may be able to run a basic “change” message in 2020. But party strategists can’t count on that being enough.

They may well need a nominee, and a ticket, that can offer a much bigger message about the future and what kind of country most voters want this to be.

In theory, any of the candidates can offer that kind of message, since Trump’s America is so different from what we have come to expect over the last six decades, from both parties.

Democrats need to figure out who can best deliver that message and inspire voters — Democrats, independents and non-Trump Republicans — about the future and what form that “change” message takes.

Note: This column appeared initially in the April 2, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

The most vulnerable Republican senator in 2020

Under normal circumstances, Sen. Cory Gardner would be a clear favorite for re-election.

Personable and politically astute, the Colorado Republican ran a terrific campaign in 2014 to oust Democratic incumbent Mark Udall. But President Donald Trump has energized partisan Democrats and alienated suburban swing voters nationally, and that has made Gardner the most vulnerable GOP senator up for re-election in 2020.

Still, it would be unwise for Democrats to count their Colorado chickens before they’ve hatched. Gardner has an uphill fight, but it’s not an impossible one.

Racking up wins

Gardner was just 30 years old when he was appointed to the Colorado state House in 2005. He won a full term the next year and was re-elected in 2008.

In 2010, he challenged and defeated Democratic Rep. Betsy Markey. After initially announcing in May 2013 that he wouldn’t run for the Senate, Gardner reversed himself the following year in late February.

National Republicans, who never stopped recruiting him for the Senate, were overjoyed, while Democrats realized that Udall had a serious fight on his hands.

Gardner opened his general election campaign with a renewable energy/pro-environment television ad that showed he would run from the center and woo suburban voters.

It was a savvy move and a smart strategy, given the likelihood that Democrats would portray him as a conservative ideologue.

The challenger was simply more likable than Udall, who didn’t help himself by obsessively focusing on reproductive rights at the same time that Gardner was stressing economic and energy themes.

Gardner won narrowly, 48 percent to 46 percent, a margin of just under 40,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast.

While he ran a strong race, Gardner definitely benefited by running during Barack Obama’s second midterm election. Without the dynamic that produced a nine-seat Republican Senate gain nationally, he may well have fallen short in his Senate bid.

The state of the state’s politics

Though Republican presidential nominees have carried Colorado in 10 of the last 15 elections, the state has been generally competitive for years. More recently, however, it has been sliding away from the GOP.

Last year, Democrats retained the state’s open governorship, took over the offices of attorney general, state treasurer and secretary of state, and gained a new congressional seat. The party also flipped the state Senate.

Democrats now control the state House with 41 seats to 24 seats for the GOP, and the Senate more narrowly, 19-16.

But state election results tell a slightly more complicated story.

Donald Trump received a smaller percentage of the vote in 2016 (43.3 percent) than Mitt Romney did in 2012 (46.1 percent) or John McCain in 2008 (44.7 percent), but Trump’s losing margin (4.9 points) was actually less than Romney’s (5.4 points) or McCain’s (9 points).

And while Democrats won an at-large University of Colorado regent seat last fall, Republicans held the other at-large regent seat in 2016 at the same time Trump was losing the state.

University board of regents or board of governors races often reflect a state’s partisan fundamentals, combined with the particular election cycle’s partisan dynamics.

Still, Democrats have won 10 of the last dozen gubernatorial elections, a remarkable feat that suggests something more than mere chance.

Interestingly, the state’s senior senator, Democrat Michael Bennet, has not exactly blown away his Republican opponents, both of whom were regarded as relatively weak.

Bennet, who was appointed to the seat in 2009, squeezed by Ken Buck 48.1 percent to 46.4 percent in 2010, which probably reflects the strong anti-Obama midterm message more than the two candidates’ quality or the state’s underlying partisanship.

Six years later, Bennet beat Republican Darryl Glenn, then an El Paso county commissioner, 50 percent to 44.3 percent.

Both parties seem to have relatively low ceilings and high floors in statewide races, which means a tight Senate race next year is very possible.

Previewing 2020

A couple of recognizable Democrats are already in the race. Andrew Romanoff is a former speaker of the Colorado House who lost a 2010 Senate primary to Bennet and a 2014 challenge to Republican Rep. Mike Coffman. (Coffman lost re-election by a surprisingly large margin last year in a suburban swing district.)

Mike Johnston is a former Colorado state senator who finished a credible third (with almost a quarter of the vote) in last year’s Democratic primary for governor.

Other prominent Democrats, including Rep. Ed Perlmutter, continue to be mentioned as possible candidates, though one of them, former Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran, has decided to run for the House instead.

Democrats haven’t yet given up on their hope that former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who announced a presidential bid recently, will eventually forgo his White House ambitions and instead enter the Senate race.

Gardner is lucky his seat is up next year instead of 2018.

It’s generally easier for an incumbent to swim against the tide in a presidential year than during a midterm election, when voters use their House and Senate votes to make a statement about a president who is not on the ballot.

Next year, voters who dislike Trump but generally view Gardner favorably have separate votes to cast, giving the Republican senator a better opportunity to attract ticket-splitters.

Nevertheless, Trump will be a significant liability for Gardner, since a vote for the incumbent is one for continued GOP control of the Senate and inevitably a vote in support of the president.

Gardner, after all, chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee last cycle (making him a member of the party’s Senate leadership), and he generally has been a loyal soldier in Trump’s Senate army.

He will have to depend on his campaign skills and, possibly, some Democratic division to hold his seat next year. It will be a difficult challenge with Trump at the top of the ballot.

Of course, Democrats Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana squeaked out even more difficult victories last year, so Gardner at least has a roadmap to follow.

Note: An almost identical version of this column first appeared in Roll Call on March 5, 2019.