Photos via Flickr (Aaron Minnick/Inter-American Dialogue)

2020 Preview: Could One of These Democrat Underdogs Pull an Upset?


Last week, we began our preview of the 2020 presidential primaries by looking at the front runners for the Democratic nomination. In this next part of our series, we’re looking at the middle tier of candidates who are reaching more than 1 percent in early polls. These are the candidates who would have a decent shot at the nomination but will need to separate themselves from the pack to compete with the big names like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris.

Michael Bloomberg

One of the top ten wealthiest people in the world with a personal fortune over $50 billion, Bloomberg is seen as more of a moderate Democrat. He was elected mayor of New York City — a position comparable to governor given the city’s size and the office’s powers — as a Republican just weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. But he was a liberal Republican who raised taxes, did little on illegal immigration, and espoused pro-abortion views, eventually leaving the Republican Party in 2007.

Since departing office in 2013, Bloomberg has focused on gun control and global warming, donating hundreds of millions of dollars to liberal Democrats around the country and left-wing nonprofits. He was encouraged to run as an independent for president in the last three cycles, but declined each time. However, his heavy involvement in the 2018 midterms has led many to believe he may actually compete as a Democrat in 2020. He would be another 70-something year old candidate like Biden and Sanders, as he would be 78 on inauguration day 2021.

Early prognosis: For all intents and purposes, Bloomberg has all the money in the world and could totally blanket the airwaves with nonstop ads without making a dent in his personal fortune. That alone and his fairly high name recognition would make him a serious threat in the primaries. But the base of the party would be suspicious of his past as a Republican, his semi-moderate record, and his status as a 0.1-percenter.

Beto O’Rourke

It may be a mistake to include the three-term congressman in the middle tier of candidates, because the rock star image O’Rourke attained during his failed Senate run against Ted Cruz in 2018 could fade fast. But he’s been scoring pretty high numbers in early polls, including the first Iowa poll, which put him in third.

His real name is Robert Francis O’Rourke, but he has played up his Spanish-sounding nickname, Beto, even though his parents are white and his last name is as Irish as it gets. While it scores him some points on the identity-politics-obsessed left, he has also been accused of “cultural appropriation” by the same left. After some run-ins with the law in his twenties, including a DWI, and a stint in a punk rock band, he founded a software company and was elected to the city council of El Paso. He was later elected to Congress in a blue district in 2012. Despite setting a record for the most money ever raised by a Senate candidate, he was soundly defeated in 2018 by Cruz, who made a fool out of the inexperienced O’Rourke in debates.

Early prognosis: O’Rourke gained national fame on the left with a glitzy campaign for Senate, but as an inexperienced congressman, he may just be the flavor of the month for now. He has expressed hesitation to run for president because he has young children. But he has become something of a celebrity, and if he were to run, he would certainly attract a lot of attention.

Kirsten Gillibrand

Gillibrand was a one-term, blue dog Democrat congresswoman from upstate New York when she was appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated when President Barack Obama nominated Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state. Since then, she has abandoned the few conservative Democrat positions she held to become a mainstream liberal who suits New York. She has close ties to the Clintons but has painted herself as a champion for women against sexual assault and harassment. She angered liberal donors by demanding the resignation of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in a sexual misconduct scandal, and she has sought to repudiate Bill Clinton — but only after working her way into the Clinton donor network. She said last year that she would not run in 2020 but said this month that she changed her mind and was thinking about it.

Early prognosis: Gillibrand would have to clearly distinguish herself from candidates like Warren and Harris. Also, she would be hampered by the conservative stances she took on immigration and gun rights while a congresswoman in upstate New York. But she has access to a lot of big money donors in New York and could certainly mount a serious campaign.

Amy Klobuchar

Recently elected to her third term as a senator from Minnesota, Klobuchar largely flew under the national radar until her clashes with Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings earlier this year boosted her profile. She has encouraged fellow Democrats to appeal to blue-collar voters who supported Trump and not to abandon the Midwest.

Early prognosis: Klobuchar has low name recognition and has barely reached 1 to 2 percent in early polls. A lot of things would need to go her way, but as an experienced senator, she can’t be ruled out. Minnesota has been trending Republican, which could actually help Klobuchar as a Midwestern alternative to coastal candidates like Warren and Harris.

Sherrod Brown

Ohio may be transforming from a perpetual swing state to a red state, but the hard-left Brown managed to win re-election in 2018 thanks to a weak Republican candidate and his reputation as a blue-collar champion. He served as Secretary of State of Ohio from 1983 to 1991 and won seven terms in the U.S. House before being elected to the Senate in 2006. He was on Hillary Clinton’s shortlist for vice president in 2016. And he is one of an endangered species of Midwestern Democrats.

Early prognosis: Brown would have definite appeal in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that Democrats need to win back in 2020. But he has low name recognition nationally, with a new poll that shows only 23 percent of Democrats know who he is. Democrats have increasingly become the party of cities on the coast, and primary voters may not be interested in Brown despite his solidly left-wing record.

In the next installment, we’ll look at the bottom tier of candidates, including names like Terry McAuliffe, Eric Holder, Martin O’Malley, and others.

Photos via Flickr (Aaron Minnick/Inter-American Dialogue)

Thomas Valentine

Thomas Valentine is a columnist for

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