A challenge requires a challenger – and all the Democrats being discussed as potential primary opponents to President Joe Biden tell CNN they’re ruling out runs and warning others to follow suit.
The chatter is fed by Democratic officials and party leaders who have begun to doubt that Biden is, as he’s insisted privately to donors and others, their strongest candidate to beat Donald Trump – or another GOP candidate – in 2024. And it’s being propelled even more by the 79-year-old President’s age, which has prompted questions about what kind of campaign schedule he’d be able to keep up.
Fear runs deep of yet another unfavorable Biden comparison to Jimmy Carter, who survived a 1980 primary challenge from Ted Kennedy but not the lasting wound going into the general election. Democrats privately hoping Biden might reverse course and not run are petrified that they’re backbiting their way into allowing Trump and Trumpism back into power.
That hasn’t stopped muted worries from going around the West Wing, according to four aides familiar with the conversations, that someone may yet emerge ahead of the President’s planned spring 2023 formal reelection campaign launch. Biden advisers expect to stick to that no matter what happens, including if Trump decides to jump in early.
“Nothing about our timeline changes, but we’re prepared if he decides to run,” one person familiar with the Biden team’s political planning said about Trump.
But even Rep. Ro Khanna, the California congressman and former Bernie Sanders campaign co-chair, who first won his seat by beating an incumbent in a primary, said he won’t entertain the thought of jumping in against Biden, although he’s aware he’s being whispered about – so much that a close friend had a dream over July Fourth weekend that he did it.
“Absolutely not,” Khanna told CNN. “I plan to support (Biden) because of the danger that Donald Trump poses. I would certainly not do anything to weaken him, and I hope no one else will do anything to weaken him. He’s still the safe brand in the midwestern states to make sure Trump is kept far away from the Oval Office.”
That also goes for California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has been causing the most antsy whispers from the Biden orbit with his comments calling out a lack of Democratic action and energy and his buying a July Fourth ad in Florida hitting Gov. Ron DeSantis, a prospective 2024 GOP candidate. Newsom, who’s facing reelection in November, compared the Democratic dynamics to those he initially faced in his recall election last year, when he and advisers worked to scare off several Democrats who’d looked at jumping in against him.
“The success of our recall was about unifying around our party and defining the opposition. We need to unify the Democratic Party and not destroy ourselves from within,” Newsom said. “We need to have our President’s back. But we also have to get on the field. He needs troops. He has to govern. Our job is to organize, and it’s to have his back.”
The same goes for J.B. Pritzker, the billionaire first-term Illinois governor who also drew some behind-the-scenes brushback from Biden world by delivering a speech about his exhaustion with the Democratic status quo in famous first-presidential primary state New Hampshire. The Democrat, who’s running for a second term in November, lit up even more speculation with his response to the Highland Park shooting in his state earlier this month, which was more forceful than Biden’s.
Biden “has said he’s running for reelection and I support that,” Pritzker told CNN, adding that though he thinks some other opponent may yet emerge, Biden “will win the nomination, and yet, it’ll be Ted Kennedy running against Jimmy Carter … They will lose and they will take away from the President. That’s not what we need right now.”
The speculation is at a high enough fever that when Pete Buttigieg’s PAC reactivated on Twitter at the end of June to endorse a few candidates for US House and state legislature, several plugged-in operatives began to wonder if this was the first step in the transportation secretary relaunching as a candidate. His attendance at Democratic National Committee events and meetings with a few potential future donors only sparked more talk.
But there’s nothing to that, according to a Transportation Department spokesperson, who said, “Buttigieg has had no involvement in Win the Era PAC since his nomination as Secretary. He is 100 percent focused on his job at DOT, including implementing President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law.”
Some have talked about Jared Polis, the Colorado governor known for straying from what became Democratic orthodoxy on Covid-19 lockdowns and is facing voters this fall. He has a personal fortune, several operatives noted, and while not enough to self-fund, enough to possibly seed a campaign and feel confident that he wouldn’t have to worry about endangering future job prospects. Polis campaign spokesperson Amber Miller said he’s “not considering anything like that and is focused on running the state of Colorado. If he is re-elected, he plans to serve his entire term as governor of Colorado.”
Vice President Kamala Harris has repeatedly said Biden intends to run and that she’d be his running mate, and no one around her or anywhere else believes she’d be able to pull off a campaign that started by breaking with him.
Sanders, the Vermont senator who has twice sought the Democratic nod, told CNN last month he would not run against Biden. A spokesperson for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, told CNN that nothing has changed since the Massachusetts Democrat told NBC News that she’s not running for president in 2024 and would be supporting Biden. Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ top political adviser and former campaign manager, said trying to run by appealing to his wing of the party “would be an almost insurmountable climb to get to the top of that mountain, given that Bernie has said he’s going to be supporting Joe Biden if he runs for re-election.”
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated a member of Democratic House leadership to come to Congress, told late night host Stephen Colbert at the end of June that she was more focused on preserving American democracy than presidential speculation.
But she’s also held off on saying she would support Biden for reelection, noting that the President hasn’t said he’s running himself.
Asked by CNN if that left space for her to consider running a youthful, progressive primary against him, a spokesperson for the congresswoman didn’t return requests for comment.
Facing a ‘soft’ primary
Carter-Kennedy isn’t the only historical example on Democrats’ minds. There’s Ronald Reagan’s bruising 1976 primary campaign against Republican President Gerald Ford, which helped pave the way for Carter’s win. Or George H.W. Bush never quite recovering from Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary campaign, which hurt him with the GOP base heading into the general election.
Several senior Democrats, though, cited 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson faced a primary challenge from Eugene McCarthy. Eventually, other candidates jumped in, leading the President to withdraw that March from running for reelection.
Operatives around a number of prospective presidential candidates argue that Biden is already facing a “soft” primary challenge from many directions. The goal, they say, is not to run against Biden, but rather to implicitly reassure the President that Democrats have other good options from the next generation or two, and that he should be comfortable passing the torch to them.
The other goal is for Democrats to get as ready as they can, on the chance that Biden drags out his reelection decision and then changes his mind so late into the presidential cycle that other candidates are hobbled in launching campaigns and raising money.
For all the free media attention that would come from declaring a primary campaign against Biden, no one seems to want to go down as blowing a hole in the party for Republicans to march back through – particularly at a moment when apocalyptic feelings are so high. This is about future ambitions, too: Those would-be candidates are aware Democratic voters would never forgive a spoiler.
“It’s about us having his back, not taking back some wing of the party,” Newsom said. “It’s about everybody disabusing ourselves that we have the luxury of division from within.”
“I believe there will be plenty of time post-Donald Trump to debate the future of the Democratic Party,” Khanna said. “For people who have future ambition, they’d much rather be running in a post-Donald Trump and post-Joe Biden world.”
Barack Obama faced a flurry of primary speculation at about this point ahead of his own reelection campaign 12 years ago – to the point that Gallup tested how well he’d do if Hillary Clinton ran against him, and Sanders started poking around in New Hampshire about jumping in against him.
Many of the Democratic leaders, operatives and donors who spoke to CNN about having these conversations insist it’s precisely their fear of Trump beating Biden that is driving them to cast around for possible other options.
Not only is Biden now clocking lower approval ratings than almost every Democratic governor and senator on the ballot in November, but several internal Democratic polls have shown him struggling against Trump in battleground states.
Asked if he understood what was generating the talk of a primary challenge that he thinks may yet emerge, Pritzker paused. First, he reiterated his support of Biden. Then, he repeated his call for more energy and action, without mentioning the President specifically.
“We absolutely need to be stronger and louder in our condemnation of the right wing and what they stand for, and in our defense of the liberties of women and those who are marginalized,” Pritzker said. “There is a palpable change in attitude among Democrats.”
Pushing back on the nudging
Before he launched his 2020 campaign, Biden advisers had bounced around the idea of a one-term pledge as a way to answer questions about his age. Biden nixed the idea, saying he’d never be able to get anything done as an immediate lame duck. He’s made similar comments about what would happen to his power at home and on the world stage if he were to announce he’s not running for reelection.
Few around Biden see that changing. Some even suggested that a primary challenger could inadvertently help him recover from approval numbers stuck below 40% by giving him a foil. If that challenge came from the left and allowed him to argue he hasn’t kowtowed to progressives – as Republicans and some Democratic moderates claim – several operatives said that would be even better.
But as White House aides regularly point out, no incumbent president has launched a reelection campaign this early, and Biden was the last serious primary contender to announce a 2020 campaign, pushing back on those who urged him to declare earlier.
“There’s nobody who’s more infamous about his inability to make a decision about running for president of the United States,” joked one Democratic member of Congress, who asked not to be named. “And hey, he’s President.”
And while four years ago at this same point ahead of the 2020 cycle, the Democratic National Committee was deep into preparations for primaries and debates, no such efforts are underway.
Long before he became famous for managing Howard Dean’s anti-establishment 2004 presidential campaign (in what was an open Democratic field), Joe Trippi was a young aide to Kennedy’s 1980 primary challenge, running the floor operation for several states on the floor of the convention that summer.
Trippi said he hopes anyone thinking of a Biden primary realizes it would be “murder-suicide,” and warned his fellow Democrats: “Nothing good can come from it.”
“I learned that lesson the hard way as a young idealistic progressive in the late 70s early 80s,” Trippi said. “What we got for it was eight years of Reagan and four years of H.W. Bush.”