Consider it an extended gap year.
In the months leading up to the midterm elections, former Democratic officials in transition are finding new ways to be useful, padding their résumés with miscellaneous prep work ahead of November when down-ballot results roll in—and early presidential bids are expected to roll out.
The “Now what?” phase of post-office politics affects a small but influential crop of national leaders in limbo. No longer in government and with no immediate plans to be, former Cabinet secretaries, governors, and other ambitious Democrats are staying busy by committing to causes that could be useful later on.
“Right now, the PAC itself is not 60 hours a week,” Julián Castro told National Journal. “We’re not quite there yet, but I see it ramping up.”
Castro, 43, a former Housing and Urban Development secretary, was referring to “Opportunity First,” his new political action committee dedicated to electing young progressives. Since leaving office 14 months ago, he has already traveled to one of the buzziest states in presidential politics, New Hampshire, to “get a sense of what voters are thinking.” He’s heading to Florida and California in the coming months. And he’s writing a memoir.
Just ahead of his New Hampshire trip, Castro said he’s been building up his PAC’s digital and fundraising operations. And as it grows he expects to staff up with plenty of political talent, as are other top-level Democrats looking nationally.
But while he’s less coy than others in admitting to “thinking about” running for president, his midterm metamorphosis is hardly unique.
“Just because I’m out of office now doesn’t mean I’m out of the game,” said former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who left Richmond two months ago.
For 2018, McAuliffe, 61, is working with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. An aide said his role as state engagement chairman is not full-time nor paid, but it is his top political priority.
Still, McAuliffe said “the job is bigger than just redistricting,” so he intends to help out with what he calls the “midterm election of our lifetime.” He plans to travel to at least 36 states to help elect Democratic governors, along with other targets. And after steering the Democratic National Committee out of debt as chairman in the early 2000s, the prolific fundraiser hosted the financially struggling committee’s big fundraising reception at the end of last year.
The loquacious Virginian has far from ruled out a national run. “Who better to take on Trump than me?” he said to The Washington Free Beacon recently in an interview about 2020, adding to speculation that the man who once chaired Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign may be prepping for a bid of his own.
A couple dozen Democrats are likely to look into running in the emerging, wide-open primary field, including some not currently in office. The precedent is already there. Several Democrats—from Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale to Bill Bradley and John Edwards—had gap years before launching bids. Paul Tsongas had seven.
On the other side of the Beltway, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, 55, who launched a long-shot run for the nomination after leaving office in 2015, has been in a holding period for some time. After repurposing his PAC as “Win Back Your State” in November, he still hesitates to call his work full-time.
“I’m still doing some other things to keep body and soul together,” the former two-term governor told National Journal on his way to Pittsburgh to campaign for Conor Lamb, the Democratic nominee in next week’s special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th District.
O’Malley has a full plate of side work—“a mix of business, academic, and nonprofit”—he said, outlining multiple teaching gigs, fellowships, and advisory roles for smart-city nonprofits. “And I’m writing a textbook,” he added.
But while the one-time Democratic Governors Association head, who left the race after earning less than 1 percent in the Iowa caucuses, didn’t compete nationwide, he’s catching up now after traveling to 21 states in the past year, by his estimate.
“Oftentimes on weekends I find myself getting on a Southwest flight,” he said about supporting at least 30 down-ballot Democrats.
Former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, 36, who came within 3 points of unseating Republican Sen. Roy Blunt in 2016, has made on average over a trip per month to Iowa and New Hampshire since then, and is heading to Iowa again Tuesday.
Let America Vote, his ballot-access organization, will have a presence there, as well as in Georgia, Nevada, and Tennessee. In New Hampshire, Kander has already added political staff, hiring Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 Iowa caucus director, Brendan Summers, as the organization’s campaigns director, among other talent.
“What I would prefer is that Republicans just stop doing this and we don’t have to have a national conversation about it,” he told National Journal about voter-suppression tactics.
While unpaid, he considers Let America Vote “a full-time job and my top priority,” he said, noting that it takes up the whole workweek.
“I usually travel to speak at Democratic events on the weekends,” he added.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has recently spent time out of his state, so much so that an ally of the U.S. Conference of Mayors president said, “We don’t really see him much here in the city anymore.”
Landrieu, 57, who roasted Trump at the Gridiron Dinner in Washington on Saturday, is also bullet-pointing his résumé with work that could help him transition at the end of his lame-duck period in May.
His upcoming book, In the Shadows of Statues, reads as a direct affront to the president. According to an advanced copy, the memoir “examines the history behind the Confederate statues, contextualizing their presence as political propaganda and explaining how the Civil War is often misconstrued as being about anything other than slavery”—a theme that’s ignited fierce debate through much of Trump’s presidency.
And Landrieu goes a step further, arguing that former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke set the precedent for Trump’s 2016 campaign. In January, he snubbed Trump directly by boycotting a planned joint meeting, taking issue with increased pressure on sanctuary cities. “Mayors really don’t have time for political stunts,” he said.
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