Campaigns

Democratic lawmakers slowly take sides in 2020 primary

30 percent of congressional Democrats have endorsed, with most backing Joe Biden

From left, Massachusetts Reps. Lori Trahan, Ayanna S. Pressley, and Katherine M. Clark have all endorsed their home-state senior senator, Elizabeth Warren. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

More than two-thirds of Democratic lawmakers have yet to take sides in the presidential primary, a sign that the race remains in flux. But the campaigns that have nabbed congressional endorsements so far could benefit from shows of support, particularly from high-profile freshmen.  

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to back Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley’s endorsement of her home-state senator, Elizabeth Warren, grabbed national headlines. But support from lawmakers with lower profiles can still help presidential campaigns generate local media attention, demonstrate support from key constituencies and provide a team of surrogates who can be deployed across the country. 

“They can help create a ‘bandwagon’ effect by showing momentum through growing political support,” Eric Fehrnstrom, an adviser to Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, wrote in an email. “This keeps donors happy, and confirms for people already supporting a particular candidate that they made the right choice.”

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Just 84 Democratic lawmakers have endorsed candidates still running in the primary so far, which amounts to about 30 percent of Democrats in the House and Senate. At this point in the 2016 Democratic primary between Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 130 lawmakers had endorsed either of them (128 for Clinton, two for Sanders).

In 2016, congressional endorsements carried extra weight. As superdelegates, members of Congress cast votes during the Democratic convention. That’s changing next year, when superdelegates won’t get a vote on the first ballot if their votes would determine the nominee.

Clinton’s early congressional endorsements “gave the appearance of her having a lead,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, who co-chairs Sanders’ presidential campaign.

“This cycle, with the superdelegates not having a vote on the first ballot, I’m hopeful that the decision ultimately will be about the people,” the California Democrat added. 

With 16 Democrats currently running, it’s possible the nominee won’t be chosen on the convention’s first ballot. In that case, superdelegates could play a pivotal role in determining the party’s 2020 standard-bearer in subsequent rounds of voting.

“I think you have to think about it,” Rep. Cedric L. Richmond said about Democrats possibly going to their convention in Milwaukee in July with the nomination still being contested. The Louisiana Democrat, who co-chairs former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, said lawmakers are not yet actively discussing that scenario. But Richmond did note it’s a good thing Biden has the most congressional endorsements so far. 

Twenty-six lawmakers have backed Biden, who has been leading the field in national polls. Biden’s supporters say that reflects the view that he is best equipped to take on President Donald Trump, as well as his connections to lawmakers through his work as vice president and his 36 years in the Senate.

Biden has touted the endorsements to prove his support among African American voters, a critical voting bloc in the primary. But he had a notable flub during the November debate when he initially claimed he had the backing of the “only” African American female senator, before insisting he meant to say “first.”

“The other one is here,” California Sen. Kamala Harris said with a laugh in response. Harris has the most endorsements from Congressional Black Caucus members so far, with 11, as well as the most from the Hispanic Caucus, with four. She is second to Biden in total congressional endorsements, with 17.

The other candidates with lawmaker endorsements include New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who has support from all 12 members of his state delegation; Warren, with 11; Sanders, with six; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, with five; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, with three; and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, with two each. Former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who dropped out of the race Monday, had one: from his state’s senior senator, Jon Tester.

Of course, congressional endorsements do not always foreshadow the primary winner. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had the most endorsements from lawmakers in the crowded 2016 Republican primary, but Trump won the nomination.

But endorsements can be helpful.

Democratic strategist Bill Burton, who worked for former President Barack Obama, said early endorsements for Obama in 2008 boosted the campaign amid questions about his electability. Burton said Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s decision to back Obama was a “thunderclap.”

“The presumption was that Hillary Clinton was going to be the nominee,” Burton said. “So when big institutional forces came out and supported Obama, it started to give people a sense that he could win.”

On the trail

So far, members of Congress who have endorsed in the primary are fanning out across the country, acting as surrogates at campaign events.

After Ocasio-Cortez joined Sanders in Iowa in November, the Vermont senator’s campaign sent an email to supporters noting it was the largest Iowa rally yet, drawing 2,400 people to Council Bluffs.

But even lower-profile lawmakers have hit the campaign trail. After the November debate, Reps. Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio and Brenda Lawrence of Michigan participated in Harris’ “Black Women Weekend of Action,” with Fudge traveling to Georgia and Lawrence heading to South Carolina. Fudge is a former CBC chairwoman.

Another former Black Caucus chairman, North Carolina Rep. G.K. Butterfield, acted as Biden’s representative at a recent candidate event held by Nevada Rep. Steven Horsford, who has yet to endorse in the primary.

New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, has been in the spin room in recent debates as a Warren surrogate. Haaland, Pressley and California Rep. Katie Porter were recently named co-chairs of Warren’s campaign. Haaland’s endorsement is particularly notable since Warren has faced criticism for claims about her own Native American ancestry.

Haaland said she did not know if her endorsement helps Warren combat that criticism, but added, “If it helps her, then I’m happy.”

Porter’s endorsement underscores another way in which congressional endorsements can help a presidential campaign: fundraising. The California freshman has been a prolific fundraiser for her own congressional campaign.

Virginia Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., one of two lawmakers to endorse Buttigieg, said much of his role with the campaign so far has been hosting events and fundraising. Beyer also raised money for Obama.

Beyer said Buttigieg’s campaign was pleased with his endorsement, but, he joked, “I don’t think they threw a party or anything.” 

“They’d like to have more,” Beyer said.

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