Democrats behind the scenes are already talking about and making contingency plans for 2024 in case President Biden decides not to seek a second term, moves expected to intensify immediately after Election Day.
Nov. 8 won’t just decide what Congress looks like for the next two years. It will in many ways kick off the presidential campaign season and determine what that looks like for Democrats.
If they do better than expected, Biden could make a strong case for running again and the likelihood that he’ll get a credible challenger shrinks. But if Democratic candidates have a bad showing some in the party are expected to call for more options.
“I’ve been very clear,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said at a Nexstar sponsored-debate against Republican nominee J.D. Vance this week. “I’d like to see a generational change.”
At age 79, Biden has called himself “a bridge” between generations of Democratic politicians. Top leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), 82, and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), 71, are in his age range, and administration officials often swat off questions about whether he’ll run again, with public and private statements indicating his intent.
But taken in tandem with the uncertainty of the midterms, the age factor leaves the door open for Democrats to start laying some groundwork, and several have already shown signs that make their aspirations fodder for speculation.
Traveling to early voting and swing states is one of the best ways to assess a politician’s interest in seeking higher office. And just a few weeks out from Election Day, midterm candidates in those places are hoping for a boost from top figures in their party — giving potential presidential hopefuls a built-in reason to be there.
In Wisconsin, Democratic Senate nominee Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor, is hoping to get recognizable figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to the battleground state, according to a report in Politico.
A trip by Sanders, 81, would likely be seen as a controversial calculation in the home stretch, but could also raise questions about the senator’s own possible political preparations.
One progressive strategist close to Sanders told The Hill that his fanbase is still very much alive and well and quipped that he’d proudly work for the senator in 2024 even if he were in the hospital. The lighthearted remark symbolizes the dedication of some in Sanders’ orbit who would like him to mount a third presidential bid.
Sanders won New Hampshire in both 2016 and 2020, but that doesn’t mean he’d have the state to himself if he were to run again. A roster of Democrats have traveled to the first-in-the-nation primary state to convince voters to show up and vote for their party’s House and Senate candidates. The list includes several who ran against Biden last election.
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who each spent considerable time there during the last cycle, have already made the trek, while Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., has also gone several times. Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), and Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker (D) have touched down too.
“It’s going to be the Bernie effect,” said McKenzie Wilson, who serves as communications director at the polling outfit Data for Progress.
“If you can get J. B. Pritzker to run, who’s been very pushed to the left by progressives in Illinois very successfully, is that a win?” she asked about the billionaire Biden ally who has been talked about as a future candidate.
It’s not just Democrats making contingency plans for themselves. Progressives are eyeing other possible presidential hopefuls to try to figure out on what issues they could be moved leftward.
Another Biden confidant, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), has also been mentioned.
“Frankly, maybe there’s leverage in moving Gretchen Whitmer more to the left on progressive policies that really perform well,” said Wilson, mentioning positions like a $15 minimum wage. “I don’t know if anyone’s really doing that work. They probably should be.”
Still, Democrats are shy about appearing too interested in 2024 before the midterms are over and as Biden continues to emphasize he will run for a second term.
They argue the party first needs to perform well in November to stop what they foresee as an avalanche of potential problems if Republicans gain control of even part of Capitol Hill.
One past presidential candidate summed it up as an existential question about the country’s values and principles, rather than just horse race politics.
“The most important thing is for the Democrats to do well that day, of course,” Marianne Williamson, a spiritual author and progressive activist, told The Hill on Thursday. “But we’re talking here about something much more important than a political football game; we’re talking about the fate of our democracy.”
“No one person or their career or their political prospects is what matters now,” she said.
Democrats broadly agree on that. But the conventional orthodoxy says they can wear many hats, shifting between roles as lawmakers, surrogates and eventually candidates themselves.
Some say that applies particularly to progressives right now. Three House liberals, Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Katie Porter (D-Calif.), have all recently written books reflecting on their journeys and visions for a better political system. Book tours can afford candidates yet another way to visit key states while promoting their work.
“A lot of it comes down to self-promotion, and one’s willingness to put themselves out there way before others would,” said a well-connected Democratic source in New Hampshire.
The source mentioned Buttigieg, 40, who Democrats are increasingly whispering about as a younger leader who could be in contention for the nomination for a second time. That scenario, however, usually comes with the caveat that Biden would have to announce he wouldn’t run, since Buttigieg is now working in the administration and is seen as a team player.
Many in the party believe he has the desire and is well poised to do it, including being the face of bipartisanship legislation at work in the infrastructure bill.
“He is very talented, but it remains pretty stunning (almost brazen) that as a 33-year-old two-term mayor of a small city that was overwhelmingly Democratic … could be a serious candidate for DNC chair. And then president?” said the source from the Granite State, where Buttigieg came in second place and is currently polling ahead of Biden in one survey.
“My point is not that Buttigieg couldn’t pull it off — he did! — but that he had the confidence to try it,” the source said. “There are others … with the talent to try it, but it takes that willingness to just go for the throat, too, and not wait for somebody else to tell you you’d be good at it.”