Photos via Flickr (US Department of Agriculture / Foreign and Commonwealth Office / Gage Skidmore)

2020 Preview: Will One of These Long Shots Emerge as a Contender?


It’s 2019, and the new Congress has been sworn in, with Nancy Pelosi reclaiming the speakership after eight years in the minority. The 2020 Democratic presidential primaries are underway in earnest, as the first big name — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — has formed an exploratory committee (and did a hilariously fake Instagram live video). In the first two parts of our 2020 preview series, we looked at the front runners and the middle tier. Now we’re looking at the bottom tier: those candidates who are big enough names to warrant attention, but face the most uphill climb of all.

Terry McAuliffe

The former governor of Virginia and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee is a longtime close ally of the Clintons. He ran for governor of Virginia in 2013, partly to lay the groundwork for the 2016 Clinton campaign in the state, and pulled off a two-point victory in a race that might have gone red if not for the bogus corruption charges against the incumbent Republican governor, Bob McDonnell.

McAuliffe entered office as a lame duck with both houses of the state legislature controlled by Democrats, and he left office with few accomplishments. The biggest legacy he left on the state was his attempt to unilaterally restore voting rights to over 200,000 convicted felons in violation of state law. When the state Supreme Court said the move was illegal, he resorted to abusing his power as governor by individually restoring voting rights one at a time with an autopen.

McAuliffe is known as a maniacal salesman with a treasure trove of dubious quotes and corrupt business practices in his past, including a failed Chinese-backed electric car venture and an infamous quote from Bill Clinton: “I would buy a new car from Terry. But a used car? I am not so sure about a used car.” He has already said he is “obviously looking at running for president.”

Early prognosis: McAuliffe can be seen as the Donald Trump of the left — boisterous and colorful with a checkered record. He would struggle to draw a contrast with Trump in a general election campaign, and Clinton fatigue may hurt his chances with some Democrat voters. But he is extremely energetic and a prolific fundraiser and would work his tail off to garner attention.

Eric Holder

Barack Obama’s attorney general was the first cabinet member in United States history to be held in contempt of Congress. He oversaw a Department of Justice that refused to enforce U.S. law, including refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court and refusing to prosecute anyone involved in the IRS targeting of conservative groups. He left office in 2014 and more or less disappeared for a couple years before resurfacing in 2018 talking about his interest in running for president. He was captured on video in the midterm campaign giving a now-infamous quote about Republicans: “When they go low, we kick them.”

Early prognosis: Attorney General is not a typical stepping stone to the presidency, and the positions he took as a lawyer and a judge may be hard to translate to voters who don’t understand the complexities of them. He’ll have to dump decades of a lawyerly approach and become a red meat, bomb-throwing leftist to appeal to voters. Can he do that? It remains to be seen, but as one of the most powerful former members of the Obama administration, he should at least be taken seriously.

Julian Castro

The former mayor of San Antonio was tapped to serve as Barack Obama’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 2014. He has been seen as a rising star since giving the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and Hillary Clinton looked seriously at picking him for her vice presidential nominee. He was one of the first candidates to form an exploratory committee. Even though he was a Cabinet official, his name recognition is low, and he does not even register in most early polls.

Early prognosis: Castro has been preparing to run for president for years and has already been visiting early primary states. He will have to overcome very low name recognition to garner any attention. There may be just too many names in his way. But at age 44, this could be his first of multiple runs for office.

John Delaney

The former congressman from Maryland warrants mention only because he was the first elected official to formally declare his candidacy, announcing in July 2017 — over three years before election day — that he would run. He represented a heavily gerrymandered district that stretches from the rural, mountainous, and red western part of the state all the way to the D.C. border. He is independently wealthy, spending millions of his own dollars to run for Congress.

Early prognosis: No member of the House of Representatives has been elected president since James Garfield in 1880, and Delaney is a poorly-known former congressman at that. His limited blue-collar appeal and first-in status are about all he has going for him at this point.

The Others

There could be a dozen other candidates who run but never make it beyond the periphery of the race. These include:

Mayors: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is a polished technocrat who may be mayor of the second largest city in America but whose resume is slim. Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been pitched as a southern Democrat who could win, but he embodies that city’s history of political corruption. And South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is constantly hawked by the media as a potential candidate for some reason.

Governors: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has already formed an exploratory committee. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s victory in Trump country has given him notoriety, but Montana’s unique small-state dynamics and union presence may have more to do with his victory than actual red-state appeal. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has pushed a liberal agenda in an increasingly blue state. They all have very little national name recognition and don’t understand that being the big name in one’s state doesn’t mean people everywhere else care about you.

Members of Congress: California Congressman Adam Schiff has led the Democrat hysteria over the Russia investigation and may be one of the best-known members of the House, but that’s not saying much. Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey Jr. has ridden the coattails of his conservative namesake father but held the liberal line. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan mounted a serious challenge to Nancy Pelosi for House Minority Leader in 2016, but his rejection is further evidence that Democrats don’t care about the Midwest and its concerns. Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has been a media darling who’s always willing to appear on TV to criticize Donald Trump. So is California Congressman Eric Swalwell. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet are not well known even in Washington.

Failed Candidates: Former Georgia state representative Stacey Abrams nearly won the governor’s race but played the sore loser when it became clear she had lost — though she captured the attention of the left in the process. So did former Tallahassee, Fla., Mayor Andrew Gillum, who nearly won his state’s governorship on a socialist agenda. But they’re also more likely to be mere flavors of the month who will fade quickly.

In the final part of this series, we’ll look at the outsiders and the wild cards. These include billionaire activist Tom Steyer, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, 2004 nominee John Kerry, billionaire celebrity Mark Cuban, and others.

Photos via Flickr (US Department of Agriculture / Foreign and Commonwealth Office / Gage Skidmore)

Thomas Valentine

Thomas Valentine is a columnist for

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