Swing-state senators become 2020 kingmakers

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Swing-state senators become 2020 kingmakers




Debbie Stabenow (R) and Tammy Baldwin 

Sen. Kamala Harris has spoken to Sens. Debbie Stabenow (right) and Tammy Baldwin (left) since announcing her candidacy for president. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As Democrats prepared to dive into the 2020 presidential election, they have sought counsel from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But they’ve also looked to Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan for advice from the key states that tipped the 2016 election to President Donald Trump.

The three Midwestern Democratic senators all won reelection in 2018, and they’ve begun advising 2020 Democrats about how to replicate their success in the heartland next year. In phone calls and informal chats on the Senate floor, they and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) — who last week removed himself from the 2020 race after considering a run — are using their recently tested political clout to influence the primary and steer candidates to their states.

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None of the Democratic senators represent early primary states, which means candidates aren’t regularly flocking to their states to court party activists yet. But the party made a statement about the importance of the Midwest when it selected Milwaukee for its 2020 convention. And with Democratic voters focused on nominating a candidate who can beat Trump, the candidates are determined to prove they can understand and compete in the nation’s key swing states.

“The path to the presidency goes right through Wisconsin. It was Trump’s narrow win in this state as well as some neighboring states that solidified the presidency for him,” Baldwin told POLITICO in an interview.

“I also would note that it’s really near Iowa,” Baldwin added.

Several declared and likely presidential candidates are heeding that advice. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas have already visited Wisconsin. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is doing an MSNBC town hall in Michigan next week, and Klobuchar is joining a women’s luncheon hosted by the state Democratic Party in Detroit in May. Sen. Kamala Harris of California is headed to Cleveland in April for an Cuyahoga County Democratic Party dinner.

Gillibrand’s campaign specifically requested MSNBC hold her town hall in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, which Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens flipped last year, according to an aide. The New York senator’s PAC donated to Stevens during her primary campaign. Gillibrand has already spoken to Stabenow for advice and plans to speak to fellow Michigan Sen. Gary Peters soon.

Stabenow said she’s already heard from five or six presidential hopefuls in total, who want to talk about Michigan’s politics and policy, including in-depth conversations about the future of the auto industry and General Motors.

“I’ve had a couple colleagues ask me to walk them through what’s happening with the auto industry and what’s happening for workers and communities,” Stabenow said.

Harris has spoken to Stabenow and Baldwin since announcing for president. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has called the pair, though they haven’t yet had prolonged discussions. And while he hasn’t talked with any current Midwestern senators, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro has talked with former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin — with whom Brown also met when he was he was mulling jumping into the 2020 Democratic primary field.

After last year’s elections, Baldwin and Casey gave presentations to their Democratic colleagues during caucus meetings, detailing how their campaigns were successful. More than half a dozen of those colleagues are now running or exploring presidential bids.

In interviews, Baldwin and Stabenow pointed out local issues critical to their states’ voters, including natural resources and the Great Lakes. Baldwin also cited prescription drug pricing, manufacturing and agriculture as issues she campaigned on.

Casey, who won by 13 percentage points in Pennsylvania over former Rep. Lou Barletta, a close Trump ally, said the key to his victory was not only surging turnout in urban and suburban areas but cutting down losing margins in rural areas that had overwhelmingly backed Trump. He said that is the road map for how the Democratic presidential nominee can flip the state in 2020.

“We showed in 2018 that you can do very well in traditionally strong areas for Democrats like urban and suburban communities and still do well enough in places where Democrats have taken heavy losses over the years,” Casey said.

Casey also pointed to 2008 to argue Democrats shouldn’t ignore Pennsylvania in the primary. Obama lost the state to Clinton that year, but Casey said his investment competing in the primary helped Obama lay the groundwork to campaign successfully in the general.

“I’m hoping that some candidates who may only be focused on the near-term primaries and caucuses will also try to plant a flag in Pennsylvania,” Casey said.

Michigan and Wisconsin also have history as critical primaries, even though they aren’t early on the calendar. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ upset win in Michigan in 2016 gave his campaign a major boost of energy. And Wisconsin doesn’t share a primary day with other states, meaning it could provide a singular opportunity for candidates to win an attention-grabbing victory.

None of the senators said they had plans to endorse a candidate. Baldwin said she was focused on the general election, and Stabenow said she was inclined not to endorse but hadn’t decided. Casey said he wasn’t sure, adding that he doubted endorsements would hold significant sway with voters.

The Democratic governors of the Midwest have been free with their own advice for 2020 contenders, too. Fresh off 2018 victories, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf are expecting an influx of 2020 Democratic candidates to sit down with them for advice about campaigning in the region. The common advice among those leaders is to not overdo it.

“People like their leaders to be reasonable and find common ground,” Evers said in an interview at the recent National Governors Association meeting.

Brown and Casey both flirted with presidential runs, and Brown traveled extensively to early primary states to tout his message about the “dignity of work.” When he decided against a bid last week, he said he had seen Democrats already in the race adopt his message and was confident it would continue to resonate even if he weren’t running.

Brown then received an outpouring of praise on Twitter from presidential candidates, and he said he’s since heard from several candidates eager for his input.

“They call after somebody gets out,” Brown said. “They become your good friends all of the sudden.”

Christopher Cadelago contributed to this report.

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