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Moderate Dems seek one of their own to win 2020 primary, topple Trump

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By Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — The 2020 Democratic presidential primary hung a left turn out of the gate, leaving the middle of the field wide open for … someone.

But who?

“We really, really don’t know yet,” said Matt Bennett, a vice president of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.

He’s not panicking this early in the election cycle.

“This year will be about playing to the activists on Twitter and online donor universe. Next year will be about winning votes, and those are very different universes,” Bennett said.

In 2016, it was progressives who were left waiting, begging even, for a champion to enter the ring against the front-runner, Hillary Clinton. First, they tried to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, then they rallied around Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont as the non-Clinton alternative.

This year, though, progressives have an embarrassment of riches, with Warren and perhaps Sanders back to set the pace and fresher faces like Sen. Kamala Harris of California, among others, embracing single-payer health care and other left causes with a convert’s zeal.

Now it’s moderate Democrats who are left waiting and worrying about finding a nominee who they think can beat President Donald Trump.

One potential contender for those unsatisfied with their current options is Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who announced her candidacy on Sunday.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 26, 2016.David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, has slammed the liberal candidates’ soak-the-rich tax plans as he weighs a bid. And ex-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who knocked the “dishonest populism” of the left in a recent op-ed, may enter the contest in March.

But everyone is living the shadow of former Vice President Joe Biden, who comfortably leads polls of the nascent Democratic field.

“That (moderate) lane would be secured if the vice president makes the decision to get in,” said Harold Schaitberger, the longtime president of the International Association of Fire Fighters and vice president of the AFL-CIO.

Members of the firefighters’ union voted narrowly for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but broke heavily for Trump in 2016, according to an internal poll conducted by the union and shared with NBC News.

If Biden doesn’t run, the 316,000-strong union will look for someone who can appeal to “pragmatic” and “middle of the road” voters, many of whom had once been reliable supporters of Democrats, Schaitberger said.

“I believe that for the Democratic nominee to win, it’s going to take a nominee that can actually reach the electorate in between the two coasts,” Schaitberger said in an interview. “We would have great difficulty considering or embracing a candidate from that far left, liberal side of the spectrum.”

That’s a sentiment shared by many of the party’s donors and other gatekeepers, who will look for someone to fill the void left by Biden if he passes on running again, as he did in 2016.

“Others are waiting to see what Biden does. He’s polling so strongly that they think if he is in, they can’t get far,” said David Brock, who runs a network of Democrat-aligned groups and just returned from a donor conference he hosted in Palm Beach, Florida. “There is definitely a space for a candidate who is solidly progressive, but more toward the center.”

Their numbers are waning, but about 35 percent of Democrats still call themselves moderates while another 13 percent identify as conservative, according to a recent Gallup survey.

At the moment, however, seven of the eight major declared candidates support Medicare for All, which has prompted some uncomfortable questions on whether they are really prepared to eliminate all private health insurance.

The pileup on the left led Trump to raise the specter of socialism in his State of the Union Address last week and make comparisons to Venezuela, while ex-Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says there is no longer room for him in his former party, leading him to consider an independent presidential run.

When Pew asked Democratic-leaning voters last month which direction they’d like to see their party move, 54 percent said “more moderate” compared to 40 percent who said “more liberal.”

“Are any 2020 Presidential candidates paying attention to this?” asked former Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat who lost re-election in Missouri last year, on Twitter.

But many mainstream Democrats think Schultz’ claim that the left has taken over the party is ludicrous. They point out that in the midterm elections in November, progressive insurgents fared poorly in swing districts in both primaries and the general election.

The most important issue on the mind of most Democrats right now, according to polls, is “electability.”

“We’re going to look for that candidate that we think can best beat Trump — period,” said Robert Wolf, the former chairman of UBS and a major Democratic donor who served as an economic adviser to President Barack Obama.

“For me, it’s going to take someone who supports progressive issues like gun reform and climate change, but must be a pro-growth Democrat to win on the economy,” Wolf added.

Of course, electability is a fuzzy concept after the surprise result of the 2016 election, and progressives and people of color have been challenging the conventional wisdom that appealing to the center is party’s best strategy.

It’s also unclear if moderate Democrats could coalesce around one candidate in the primary since they include a wide range of groups with cross-cutting values: religious African-Americans and Latinos with more conservative views on abortion; cosmopolitan professionals who want to fight climate change and the gun lobby but keep taxes low; and noncollege educated whites who might be OK with guns rights and soaking the rich.

So some candidates will likely be able to appeal to moderates for personal or demographic reasons, even while running on a progressive platform.

For instance, one name being floated by centrist Democrats is Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, one of the Senate’s most liberal members who nonetheless consistently wins re-election in an increasingly red state, which also happens to be a key presidential battleground.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, speaks at a campaign rally in Cleveland on June 13, 2016.Angelo Merendino / Getty Images file

Brown, who is currently testing the waters by touring early primary and caucus states, has made a point of refusing to join the bandwagon in support of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, the environmental plan popularized by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

“His policies come from what effect it will have on a worker,” said Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, who is trying to draft Brown into the 2020 contest. “And that is very different from everybody else, where the example is some Scandinavian country. That does not relate to a nurse working over in Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio — what do they care about a Scandinavian policy?”

Ultimately, though, the party’s nominee will likely have to transcend labels.

That’s led some moderates to express interest in a candidate like Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman who defies simple ideological categorization and ran a Senate race in Texas last year on a hopeful message that allowed people to project their own values onto him.

“We don’t need a clear winner on where we are on the ideological spectrum,” said Iowa state Sen. Jeff Danielson of his state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, now a year away. “What we need is a clear winner on the message we’ll deliver to the American people of where we go together.”



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Grilled by children, Feinstein tries to teach lesson in politics

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By Dennis Romero

U.S. Sen Dianne Feinstein, D-California, isn’t backing the Green New Deal, and she wasn’t shy about letting a group who does support it know it — even if they are children.

A group of schoolchildren visited the senator at her San Francisco office Friday and urged her to get on board with the renewable energy legislation. But the conversation quickly turned into somewhat of a confrontation, and Feinstein has been criticized online for the tone she took. Edited video of the 85-year-old lecturing more than a dozen kids went viral Friday.

One girl implored the senator to back the Green New Deal and argued that the government can afford it. “We have tons of money going to military,” the girl told the lawmaker.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Feinstein said. “I know what I’m doing. You come in here and you say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that.”

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Bigger is not better. Small dollars online are gold for Democrats taking on Trump.

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By Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — The most coveted donor for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates may not be a Wall Street financier or Hollywood producer, but a grade school teacher in the Midwest who chips in $25 a month to her favorite candidate.

Small dollars are a bigger deal than ever because they can help organize and engage a large and committed group of supporters who invest more than just money in a campaign.

“Small-dollar donors are going to be a pivotal part of this election, both strategically and practically,” said Erin Hill, executive director of ActBlue, Democrats’ central clearinghouse for online donations. “Small-dollar donors don’t just give — they also vote, volunteer and tell their friends why they care about a candidate.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., proved that his supporters, or at least 225,000 of them, are still committed when he raised a whopping $6 million on Wednesday, the day after launching his presidential campaign.

Rufus Gifford, who served as national finance director for President Barack Obama’s re-election effort in 2012, called the haul “truly remarkable,” noting on Twitter that he was skeptical Sanders could match his 2016 effort: “I was wrong.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., announced raising $1.5 million on her first day in the race, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she brought in $1 million in her first 48 hours. The other candidates have not released numbers, but FEC data shows Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., raised about $300,000 online through ActBlue on New Year’s Eve, when she announced her exploratory committee.

Sanders, of course, had a head start thanks to his previous presidential run, which helped him grow a donor pool the size of every other perspective candidate combined, according to a recent New York Times analysis.

But the good news for the rest of the current field of White House hopefuls is that there is now more opportunity than ever for left-leaning candidates to tap into grassroots fundraising — if they know how to.

“As donors get younger and younger, and people get more and more used to the internet, and campaigns get savvier and savvier, there is very real money available,” said Teddy Goff, who was a top digital strategist on presidential runs by Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Goff recalled that as recently as 2012 people would call into the Obama campaign to make sure it was safe for them to donate online.

Now, thanks to Amazon and everything else that Americans do online, digital financial transactions have become second nature. And thanks to President Donald Trump, Democratic voters are eager to open their digital wallets.

In last year’s midterm elections, ActBlue processed more than $1.6 billion in online donations, up from $782 million in 2016 and $335 million in 2014 — a five-fold surge in four years. (Republicans just last month established their answer to ActBlue after years of false starts.)

And as donating online has become frictionless for Democrats, the party has grown increasingly hostile to traditional modes of funding campaigns and to big money in politics.

For the first time, the Democratic National Committee will allow candidates to qualify to take part in the party’s debates if they can secure donations from 65,000 people in at least 20 different states. In the past, only candidates who registered a certain amount of support in the polls were allowed to participate.

“Because campaigns are won on the strength of their grassroots, we also updated the threshold, giving all types of candidates the opportunity to reach the debate stage and giving small-dollar donors a bigger voice in the primary than ever before,” DNC chairman Tom Perez said in a statement announcing the change.

That’s already altering some campaigns’ strategies, with lesser-known candidates like Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, pursuing that path to the debate stage.

Tara McGowan, the founder and CEO of the Democratic digital firm Acronym, said smart campaigns make donors “feel a sense of ownership” in the campaign and give them other meaningful ways to engage, like by volunteering or posting on social media.

“You run the risk of thinking of digital outreach as an ATM for the campaign,” she said. “You’re missing a real opportunity to help amplify your message if you’re not engaging people who are already raising their hand.”

Meanwhile, big donors simply aren’t as valuable as they once were, excluding groups that can take unlimited contributions like super PACs — and almost every major 2020 candidate has sworn off them already.

For Democrats, big checks also can come with a political cost, especially if they’re written by people who work in certain industries that have been targeted by the left, such as finance, fossil fuels and pharmaceuticals.

While large donors may expect something in return for their largesse, from a photo-op with the candidate to an ambassadorship to France, someone who gives $5 is not counting on much more than a feeling of connection to the candidate and solidarity with other small donors.

For instance, Warren has recalled how during her first run for the Senate in 2012, a young man approached her on a subway platform late one night to tell her he was working extra hours to donate to her campaign every month.

“I felt as if he’d hit me with a spear right between the ribs,” Warren wrote in her book, “A Fighting Chance.” “Good Lord — this kid was working until nearly 11 o’clock on a Saturday night and he was sending me money? I smiled weakly and said something along the lines of: ‘Uh, I’m doing OK in the campaign. Maybe you should keep your money. I’ll be fine. Really.'”

But she says he looked back and replied: “No, I’m part of this campaign. This is my fight, too.”

The first big fundraising test for every candidate will come at the end of March, when they have to file their first quarterly reports to the FEC. Early fundraising numbers are heavily scrutinized by party insiders and the media as a sign of a candidate’s strength, and historically they have been a better predictor of success than early polls.

As Democrats fight their primary race and chase small-dollar contributors, they’re not alone.

Trump’s forces have spent more than $4 million on Facebook ads since November alone to expand their list of supporters, and 75 percent of the money his campaign raised in the most recent quarter came from donors who give $200 or less.

“Realistically,” ActBlue’s Hill said, “our nominee is going to need to be primarily funded by grassroots donors in order to beat Trump, who already has widespread small-dollar donor support.”



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Cohen said to be providing new information to federal prosecutors in NY

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 / Updated 

By Tom Winter, Ken Dilanian, Jonathan Dienst and Monica Alba

President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen, facing jail in just over two months, has been speaking with and providing information to federal prosecutors in New York, according to three people familiar with the matter.

According to those sources and public statements, Cohen was questioned about a donor to the president’s inaugural committee, Imaad Zuberi, who is a political fundraiser with a history of donating to both Republican and Democratic candidates.

In addition, the sources said Cohen has discussed matters relevant to the Southern District of New York’s investigation into certain members of the Trump Organization and the Trump Inaugural Committee, investigations that have previously been reported publicly.

The New York Times first reported the discussions, which sources confirm occurred in January, on Friday evening. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.

Lanny Davis, an attorney and spokesperson for Cohen, said in a statement to NBC News: “We cannot comment on any matters that are still under investigation by the Special Counsel or the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.”

However, Davis added, “I can say that Mr. Cohen is interested in cooperating with and assisting the SDNY team in any way they believe is helpful.”

An inaugural committee spokesperson declined to comment.

The White House referred questions to the Trump Organization, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Michael Cohen leaves Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 21, 2019.Susan Walsh / AP

Zuberi has previously been mentioned in reports surrounding the investigation into the Trump Inaugural Committee. His spokesperson has previously told the Washington Post that Zuberi’s funds did not come from a foreign donor and that the money he gave was his own.

Friday’s revelations have to do with a proposed consulting agreement between Cohen and Zuberi, an agreement Zuberi’s spokesperson said was never completed.

Steve Rabinowitz, a spokesman for Zuberi, said his client “received what I would call a speculative contract from Cohen to consult on a new, small private New York real estate fund they had spoken briefly of, but that never came to be.”

Rabinowitz said his client issued a check to Cohen as part of initiating the agreement and said Zuberi recently searched his records and found a $100,000 handwritten check to Cohen that was issued in February 2017.

“The check was never cashed and by March [of 2017], Cohen and Zuberi would not speak again,” he said.

“Imaad [Zuberi] did not pursue Cohen; it was the other way around,” Rabinowitz said. “And their would-be relationship fell apart when Zuberi didn’t sign the contract, not when Cohen didn’t cash the check. And how could he? They didn’t have a deal.”

Cohen, who pleaded guilty on charges related to tax evasion and campaign finance fraud, faces a three-year sentence and is expected to report to prison May 6.

Cohen pleaded guilty in August 2018 to the charges brought by federal prosecutors in New York — six counts related to his personal finances and two related to campaign finance violations involving hush money payments to two women who said they had affairs with Trump.

Federal law allows prosecutors to seek a reduction in a jail sentence post-conviction and even post-sentencing for cooperation in an ongoing investigation.

A public court filing from prosecutors indicating that Cohen is cooperating or indicating that they seek a reduction in his sentence has not been made, and there’s no indication that there’s a formal agreement.

Cohen is expected to testify before several committees of Congress next week.



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