MANCHESTER, N.H.—To have a shot in 2020, Democrats would be wise to start making their New Hampshire swings now.
That was the logic of a dozen state party officials, strategists, and activists who saw prospective candidates hailing from the Midwest and Southern California chat up locals and donors over the waning days of summer.
In the post-Hillary Clinton world of Democratic politics, it prompted early speculation that the state could embrace a relative unknown over a brand-name politician next time around.
“New Hampshire voters are somewhat unpredictable in who they’ll take a shine to,” said David Farmer, managing director of the Bernstein Shur Group, which specializes in politics in the first-in-the-nation primary state. “I would not advise anyone who’s a quality candidate to shy away just because some of the national-level politicians are already showing that they’re willing to engage.”
The days-long jockeying played out casually. A trio of men that locals couldn’t pick out of a lineup—Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, former Missouri secretary of state Jason Kander, and Rep. John Delaney of Maryland—promoted party and personal agendas during intimate gatherings, while the state’s most recent primary winner, Sen. Bernie Sanders of neighboring Vermont, held a campaign-style rally attracting hundreds.
“I would be remiss in this moment if I didn’t thank the people of New Hampshire for the support you gave me during the Democratic primary process,” Sanders, who defeated Clinton by 22 points there, said at a rally in Concord. It wasn’t long before shouts of “We love you Bernie!” and “He touched my hand!” rang out.
Hassan Essa, a Middle Eastern refugee running for alderman in Manchester, said after Sanders’s speech that “the state is his” if he runs again. But some New Hampshire insiders say the appetite may have changed since Sanders’s revolution first caught on.
“One of the things that I’m looking for in a candidate in 2020 is someone who’s new and fresh and young,” said Kathy Sullivan, a Democratic National Committeewoman from New Hampshire. “I think it’s time to start handing off to our next generation.”
New Hampshire has a habit of welcoming newbies (only three people showed up to meet Jimmy Carter in August 1975 in Concord and six months later he won the primary, residents like to point out). And the sheer number of Democrats potentially exploring presidential bids clouds the picture.
Household names such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are being watched alongside Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar, among others.
Still, Sanders already has a fairly stable base of supporters in the state. In Concord, the senator highlighted the single-payer health care legislation he is set to roll out this week, which is increasingly dividing key Democrats. Warren and Harris, for example, publicly backed Sanders’s upcoming bill, while others have yet to jump on board.
Asked whether he would pressure Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez to support it, Sanders, charging through screaming crowds holding 2020 merchandise with his name, deflected.
“Why are you always—see, you’re interested in the politics,” he told National Journal. “I am interested in guaranteeing health care for all people, and we are going to develop a strong grassroots movement to do that.”
Elsewhere in the state, Garcetti and Kander worked small but occasionally raucous crowds of their own.
“The best movements in American history are not the ones that start in Washington,” Kander, whose plaid shirt fit the state’s unofficial uniform, said in Amherst. “They’re not the ones that start from somebody that everybody already knows.”
Those in attendance seemed to take a liking to the former elected official who came up just short in the Missouri Senate race last year.
“I’m a guy who can put a rifle together while blindfolded and on television,” he said, referencing a campaign ad promoting firearm background checks he used against Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.
“We chased the NRA out of our state,” Kander said to applause. “Bravo!” one woman cheered over his F rating from the pro-gun group. The ad worked again.
Kander’s latest gig, voting-rights group Let America Vote, provides a convenient way to canvas the country. “I’ve been to, I think, 20 states in the last few months,” he said, including stops in Iowa, Colorado, and Arizona, among others. At just 36, he also chairs the DNC’s Commission to Protect American Democracy, a Trump-resistance effort.
Garcetti has also been resisting. “It’s on the cities to save Washington,” he said at a Mexican restaurant in Manchester, just one-fortieth the size of Los Angeles.
Few people at the three stops he made one day to promote Manchester mayoral candidate Joyce Craig knew the Mexican-Italian-Jew from the San Fernando Valley. But they suggested that they knew why he was there.
“Why else would he come to New Hampshire?” Ethan Moorhouse, a young Democrat said after the two talked. “He’s really testing the ground.”
New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley agreed it’s smart to stop by now. “I think that he’s picked up some fans today,” he said. Farmer agreed: “If you’re thinking about it and you don’t have a national profile, if you come to New Hampshire to help a mayoral candidate or to speak, it’s a good test run.”
Garcetti also tailored his talk: “I know that you’re crippled by a health care crisis because of the opioids,” he said, “something that we experienced in Los Angeles maybe a decade earlier that we still see on our streets.”
He said his first trip to the state in “a couple decades” happened organically. Craig’s campaign reached out about a month and a half earlier, he estimated. “I said I was going to be in the Berkshires on vacation so I can come by,” Garcetti said.
Since Trump took office in January, other Democrats have found time to stop by. Biden, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is returning in mid-September, have all made trips promoting pet causes.
But Delaney, who announced in July he is forgoing a reelection bid to run for president, prefers being blunt. “I didn’t want to come up to New Hampshire and kind of act like I’m just here to say hello,” he said after chatting with young Democrats in Manchester, his first campaign stop in the state. “I’m much better when I’m straight with people about what I’m doing.”
The Maryland representative is cobbling together an early map: “We’re going to have an office open here in New Hampshire in the next month or two,” he told National Journal. “My plan is to do a couple hundred events in Iowa and New Hampshire between now and January 2019.” That’s when “the real campaign starts.”
A millionaire entrepreneur and third-term congressman, Delaney is the only candidate to formally announce a bid. And after founding two publicly traded companies, he says he’s just the guy to take on the Manhattan real estate mogul: “I created thousands of jobs,” he said, borrowing one of the president’s signature lines—but with one distinction.
“He’s going to ruin the Republican Party,” he said of Trump. “So then the question is, are the Democrats going to step forward and take advantage of that opportunity?”