A selfie crowd formed around Pete Buttigieg as he stood in line for coffee at the airport in Washington.
One woman said she wasn’t going to stop because she wasn’t sure it was him. “It’s me,” the Transportation secretary replied.
An older man explained to his wife, “That’s Pete BOOT-GUG,” missing the pronunciation and the emphasis.
“He’s the President’s…” the man said, unable to come up with his job title.
And yet, it’s Buttigieg – whose only political experience before his failed presidential bid was serving as mayor of South Bend, Indiana – who has become the most requested surrogate on the campaign trail for Democratic candidates in the midterms, people familiar with the requests tell CNN. He’s so in demand that he’s getting more requests than Vice President Kamala Harris, those sources tell CNN – but still fewer than President Joe Biden – as Democrats look to defend their narrow congressional majorities and win governor’s races in November.
With invitations flowing into the White House and the Democratic National Committee, a relatively low-ranking Cabinet secretary’s staff has to choose between Democratic candidates trying to chase him down. There’s no precedent for this. But there’s also no precedent for the winner of the Iowa caucuses becoming Transportation secretary and proving more agile on camera than the vice president and Biden.
Both Buttigieg and Harris are widely expected to run to succeed Biden – whether an open race emerges in 2024 or 2028 – and for Democrats looking ahead, the party’s preference for Buttigieg on the trail may be an early indicator of the future direction of the party overall.
Two dozen operatives and candidates tell CNN they think Buttigieg is benefiting from the desire for a fresh face. Despite a steady uptick since the summer, Biden’s approval ratings are low, and Democrats believe that’s hurting Harris too, who has had her own political struggles – even as much of the administration’s agenda remains broadly popular.
“It’s the association with being a Democrat – but not with Biden or Harris,” said one operative involved in multiple House races, explaining why campaigns have been gravitating to Buttigieg. “In the context of what people have to pick from, he’s very popular.”
It’s not just about popularity. Some campaign operatives admit, with a note of embarrassment, they have been reluctant to invite Harris out of fear that would bring scrutiny from Republicans who monitor every word she says in ways Buttigieg rarely has to worry about, leaving candidates as collateral damage in an attack (fairly or unfairly) aimed at the first Black woman vice president.
And some point to the basics of tight campaign budgets in the final stretch of the midterms: the vice president’s security footprint is large, and when she travels for politics, some of the costs for the Secret Service and local police protection have to be covered by the campaigns that are bringing her in. Even just a few hours on the ground can run tens of thousands of dollars and create traffic and other hold ups.
Buttigieg, by contrast, can travel with just a member of the Protective Services Division squished beside him in coach on a commercial flight. Harris only meets people who’ve been wanded by the Secret Service and tested for Covid-19, while Buttigieg can go to political events making his way through the airport in the reverse of his campaign trail style – suit jacket on now, but no tie.
White House political aides “recognize the dexterity and want to dispatch him to places that he uniquely can go and where Democrats don’t traditionally campaign,” said one person familiar with Buttigieg’s plans taking shape.
That’s in contrast to the vice president’s team, which has been hoping to rebuild her standing by keeping her away from many tight races and focused largely on Black voters, among whom she remains very popular, and on women as she talks about abortion rights, arguing that she can have a large influence indirectly.
Aides to a West Coast House Democrat in a very competitive race were debating who was going to be their one big ask in the final stretch. The President? The vice president? The first lady?
“A senior staffer on our campaign says, ‘Throwing in two cents from our finance director – our San Francisco people have expressed that they don’t really care about POTUS, VPOTUS or the first lady. … They just really like Secretary Pete,’” recounted one of the aides.
One Biden adviser highlighted an intentional deployment of the Cabinet over the final month in races where they think they’ll matter most, urging them to appear in their personal capacities to avoid violating the Hatch Act provisions on not mixing government work with campaigning. Only a few secretaries beyond Buttigieg, though, have generated much interest: Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge. Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, rarely much of a political presence, will also hit the trail soon for a few events.
But of those, Buttigieg is the only one who shows up in early presidential polls. He’s the one who was invited to address House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s retreat for top donors in Napa Valley in August. He’s the one who’s already headlined an event for Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto, seen as perhaps the most endangered Democrat in the Senate, and for Nan Whaley, the Democratic nominee for Ohio governor.
A return to New Hampshire with ‘high hopes’
Buttigieg, who came in a close second in the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic primary, was state party officials’ top choice to headline their big fall fundraising dinner, according to party officials, even before a poll that came out in late July showing him leading the field for a theoretical New Hampshire primary, essentially tied with Biden but edging out Harris by 11 percentage points.
To the surprise of some in New Hampshire, the White House political office greenlit the invitation not long after. Tickets sold out.
The morning of the New Hampshire speech, state Rep. Matt Wilhelm proudly tweeted a photo of a “BOOT EDGE EDGE” mug he had left over from when he’d endorsed and volunteered on his presidential campaign two years ago.
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“When I was asked by the party, ‘Who do we want as a surrogate?’ not only was I supportive of Pete, because yeah, I want him back here, but I think that he’s the kind of messenger that we want on the ground to get people fired up ahead of the midterms,” Wilhelm said. He remains very popular in the state, added Rep. Annie Kuster, who’d endorsed him in 2020 and had him headline a fundraiser for her campaign this year.
The synth-horn notes of “High Hopes,” his old campaign anthem, played as Buttigieg took the stage. He hadn’t done a big political speech in two years. And while rattling off Biden administration accomplishments – like putting Ketanji Brown Jackson on the Supreme Court and signing bipartisan legislation providing health care for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits – he had some rusty moments working out new lines.
“Most Americans don’t need culture wars every time there’s a gay Muppet or Black mermaid on TV – we need funding for our public schools,” he said in one riff.
But it all built to a very Buttigieg centerpiece, intended to generate knowing smirks more than laughs, and metered out to invite the standing ovation he got.
“Teddy Roosevelt had the square deal. FDR had the New Deal. So I’m going to say this body of defining achievements, this incredibly productive year, amounts to such a big deal that we ought to just call it The Big Deal,” Buttigieg said, putting that up against Republicans’ “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.
“And if, in the tradition of our President, you like to insert an extra adjective in there, feel free.”
He ended with a passage that could one day drop right into a political convention speech, soaring past Biden or the infrastructure law or any more Trump mentions, to an aspirational line about building a “truly representative, fully inclusive, multi-racial, democratic republic like the one that has been under constant construction here on US soil for the last 200 years.”
“This is somebody who really believes in the promise of democracy and in delivering results,” Sen. Maggie Hassan said after the final standing ovation for Buttigieg. “And we have seen him delivering results. And his pragmatic approach really means a lot to people here.” Hassan, who is facing a competitive reelection after winning her first term by only 1,017 votes, also had Buttigieg headline a fundraiser for her in Washington earlier this summer.
‘You’ve got to be in Joe Biden’s house’
Two weeks later, on another Saturday night, Harris was the featured speaker at the Texas Democrats’ big dinner in Austin. Every statewide Democratic candidate skipped, except the nominee for state railroad commissioner. Tickets were not as hard to get, though the state chair said it was their highest grossing event ever, and some took note that several state legislators from other parts of the state specifically flew in to be there.
Harris’ stump speeches tend to be more grounded and direct, much like she is herself.
She rooted her Austin speech in home turf stories about former Rep. Barbara Jordan and Lyndon Johnson, leading an enthusiastic call and response. She built up to a line she has often used, paraphrasing, she recalled, “the words of a great American leader, Coretta Scott King, who said: The struggle for justice is a never-ending process. And freedom is never really won; you earn it, and you win it in each and every generation.”
Even though the White House political office lets Harris’ team pick her spots and write her speeches, she can’t stray far. When she talks up Biden’s record, she has to be subsumed to the President. She can’t put her own spin on it, aside from occasional moments, such as two days after Biden rolled out his marijuana policy changes without her in the frame, when she said, “Nobody should have to go to jail for smoking weed.”
“There’s a house that Joe Biden built – it’s got a bunch of rooms, and as vice president you can choose which of the rooms you sit in. But you’ve got to be in Joe Biden’s house,” a Harris adviser said recently, trying to come up with a metaphor to describe the dynamics within the administration.
That reality – in addition to the different political landscapes in the two states – helps explains the different responses Buttigieg and Harris received in New Hampshire and Texas.
“The administration does not have a good brand in Texas – and that’s Joe Biden or Kamala Harris,” said one of the attendees at the Austin event who asked not to be named.
By contrast, being part of the administration has benefits for Buttigieg – without some of the burdens Harris faces. Since he’s doling out federal dollars in his official capacity, politicians like to be seen with him. At the dinner in New Hampshire, nearly every speaker made a joke about how they hoped he’d come back with another big check for an infrastructure project.
This past Wednesday in South Carolina, House Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn – a key Biden supporter, and a promoter of Harris – spent the day with the secretary, going around with him to multiple events.
But he said he had been eager to have Harris appear at the South Carolina Democratic Party dinner in June, and noted that she was in the critical early primary state again at his alma mater just a few weeks ago.
“When you’re bringing her in, there’s a cost factor that goes far beyond what most Democratic Party folks can afford,” Clyburn said, not the expense of Air Force 2. “When we were bringing her to South Carolina, it was a real big problem. In fact, yours truly had to step up to help the party be able to afford it.”
That speech, to an enthusiastic room in Columbia, was warmly received. Clyburn called the money he’d kicked in from his own campaign account “money well spent.”
Ducking presidential talk
Buttigieg is both self-aware enough to know that any move suggesting presidential thinking would almost certainly leak and self-confident enough to believe he doesn’t need to start laying the groundwork for a campaign now.
People in Buttigieg’s orbit and the secretary himself try to downplay any presidential speculation, and any suggestion of tension between the once and possible future rivals. People in Harris’ orbit say that they don’t spend much time thinking about the Transportation secretary, but when they do, they’re often left feeling he gets a pass on moves that for her would be seen as machinations.
“The future is Joe Biden is going to run for reelection in 2024 – so what’s the point of thinking beyond that?” said one Buttigieg adviser.
In the airport coffee line, though, a woman shrugged as her husband tried to explain who Buttigieg was after mispronouncing his name.
“I would not have known him if he bought my coffee,” she said.
That’s the downside for Buttigieg. Not far away, a stand was selling Harris bobbleheads and a T-shirt with her face on it.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the demand for tickets for Harris’ Austin event, which was the highest grossing event ever for the state party, according to its chair.