Far from winding down their political operations or retreating from the national scene, the collection of failed 2016 presidential primary hopefuls is cutting a high profile in the early weeks of the Donald Trump era, determined to leverage their newfound national stature for the 2018 elections and beyond.
Bernie Sanders has traveled to states as varied as Mississippi and Massachusetts to advance his message in recent weeks. On Tuesday, the Vermont senator sought to shape the Virginia Democratic governor’s primary by endorsing Tom Perriello. Another Democrat who fell short in the 2016 primary, Martin O’Malley, is also keeping his foot on the gas pedal — he commissioned a 2020 poll of Iowa caucusgoers last month and has campaigned for Democrats across the country in recent state and local races.
On the Republican side, Ohio Gov. John Kasich is planning a return to the early-voting presidential primary state of New Hampshire at the end of the month. Marco Rubio, who won reelection to his Senate seat in 2016 after falling short in the GOP primary, is lending his name to fundraising appeals for Josh Mandel, a challenger to Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, and helping to raise money for Miami mayoral candidate Francis Suarez. He’s also weighed in on behalf of Judson Hill, a candidate for a nationally watched special election contest in Georgia.
In fact, there’s little to indicate the 20-plus former presidential candidates are licking their wounds. Instead, many are busy surveying and mapping the unpredictable new electoral landscape, determined to carve out their place in it with Trump’s unpopular White House serving as the backdrop. For Sanders, who will be 79 years old in 2020, it’s as much about expanding his progressive political movement as anything else. For others, the moves are an attempt to springboard off their 2016 campaigns and maintain a national presence at a time of great turmoil within both parties.
“One of the things you see in every election cycle is a new set of actors stepping on the stage and an old set of actors stepping off the stage,” said Mark Longabaugh, who was a senior adviser to Sanders’ campaign. “[Sanders has] been very clear about his desire and his intent to move the Democratic Party in his direction [and] he’s built a national organization, a national platform, for himself and his issues. And he’s seizing the day.”
Few of the 2016-ers have been as aggressive in moving to mold his or her party’s national conversation as Sanders, who took advantage of the post-campaign silence from Hillary Clinton allies to step into the void and push his priority issues like debt-free college and universal Medicare to the forefront.
The goal, say people close to him and his political operation, is to move toward painting the Democratic Party — which did not vote for him — in his unapologetically progressive image as it approaches a 2018 midterm election.
The Vermont independent surprised Virginians by wading into the 2017 Democratic primary for governor by endorsing Perriello, a former congressman, over Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. He’s also stepped into a new leadership role in the Senate Democratic Caucus for which he has worked with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to hold nationwide rallies around issues like health care reform, as well as traveling on his own for tightly targeted political fights — like a unionization drive in Mississippi and a Boston rally with fellow liberal hero Elizabeth Warren.
“These are issues that Bernie has spoken about his entire life, his entire career, and what has happened now, because of the stature that he’s gained in the presidential race, is he has an ability to address these issues on a national level,” said Longabaugh. “People are paying attention now: when he speaks, people hear it.”
After failing to install Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison atop the Democratic National Committee, Sanders has relied more on Our Revolution, the political vehicle spawned from his campaign — and run by his campaign manager — that still holds his vaunted email list, to spread his message. And he’s launched a popular Facebook Live talk show out of his Senate office: the late February episode featuring Bill Nye, The Science Guy, has racked up over 1.7 million views.
Sanders’ moves have been the most public-facing, a luxury he is afforded by being in the out-of-power party. The most active among the Republican 2016 hopefuls have had to take a different tack, either joining or allying with the new administration — like Housing Secretary Ben Carson, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, or others like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — or quietly crafting their own distinctive role in the midterms.
Among the most active early on has been Rubio, who at 45 still has a long career in Republican politics ahead of him and political debts to repay.
“Marco’s political priority will be to help all the candidates that helped him when he was running for president,” explained Alex Conant, a longtime senior Rubio aide.
Former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina could have a more direct impact on 2018 — she is actively considering a challenge to Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, after being the focus of rumors about the Republican National Committee chair role prior to Trump’s election. Scott Walker and Ted Cruz, meanwhile, have used their national profiles to jump-start fundraising for their 2018 reelection bids.
While Walker — who is leading the Republican Governors Association’s efforts this cycle — does not yet have a prominent opponent, Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke announced Friday he’ll challenge Cruz. The day O’Rourke announced his bid, Cruz went on an online fundraising spree, bringing in two times more than any other day this year, he told backers in a subsequent email.
The most intriguing GOP moves have come from Kasich, who is exiting the Ohio governorship next year. The prominent Trump critic is expected to stay away from the looming gubernatorial and senatorial races in his home state, but he will return to New Hampshire — where he finished second in the 2016 primary — later this month to plug a book about lessons from the campaign. He is keeping his political operation active as he travels the country drawing contrasts with the president, often on national television.
The only Democratic 2016 hopeful with a travel schedule more active than Kasich’s is O’Malley, who has made no secret of his potential interest in pursuing the presidency again in 2020 — a contrast with the Ohioan’s denials. The former Maryland governor has returned to Iowa repeatedly while frequently traveling to other states like Delaware and Nebraska, and soon Georgia, on behalf of Democrats running in local races.
Yet he hasn’t drawn as much buzz as Joe Biden, the former vice president who came close to running in 2016 but stopped short. Just days after telling an audience in New York he could have won the White House had he run, the two-time presidential candidate raised eyebrows by agreeing to appear at a New Hampshire Democratic Party fundraising dinner in Manchester later this month. When Biden didn’t turn up at a similar event in 2015, it was taken as a big signal that he wasn’t going to run the next year.
With Clinton not expected to pursue another run after falling short twice, Monday’s development was widely greeted with similar curiosity.
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