Sen. Michael Bennet was on a swing through Iowa last week, shaking hands with Democratic voters and testing out talking points he might use on the presidential campaign trail if he officially decides to vie for the White House in 2020.
But the Colorado Democrat isn’t declaring anything yet.
“He is there to visit Iowans and having an honest conversation about how to end the political dysfunction in Washington,” said Craig Hughes, a Bennet adviser who managed his Senate campaign. “This is the first step in the process of determining whether he will or will not run for president.”
Early this week, Bennet’s Senate campaign ran ads on Facebook inviting Iowans to join him at a House party in Dubuque on Thursday night. There, he criticized the “disgraceful” state of politics, called President Donald Trump “terrible” and called members of the House Freedom Caucus “tyrants,” The Denver Post reported.
By Friday, Bennet’s campaign was running more ads on Facebook linking to that Post story. “It’s great to be in Iowa! I enjoyed my evening in Dubuque and look forward to the rest of the trip,” the ads say.
As the Colorado senator tests out his presidential appeal in the Hawkeye state, the 2020 field is already getting crowded, and promises to become even more so as additional Democrats jump in, hoping to wrest the White House from Trump.
Bennet, 54, is well known within Colorado as a longtime political insider and former superintendent of the Denver Public Schools. But the usually mild-mannered senator isn’t as well known on the national stage as some who have already announced campaigns. And many political experts and strategists question whether a low-key white man with a centrist reputation could gain traction among Democrats fired up by four years under a Trump presidency.
“I think that he would start as a long shot,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan newsletter, “Inside Elections.”
“I am intrigued by the increasing number of middle-aged white men that are running for the Democratic Party nomination at a time when the Democratic Party is celebrating diversity and fresh faces,” Gonzales added.
Experts aren’t ruling out the possibility that a white man could clinch the nomination.
Gonzales pointed to Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who announced his 2020 campaign last week. “The party could nominate a 77-year-old senator from Vermont who isn’t even a Democrat.”
But Bennet wouldn’t have the same national recognition as other candidates like Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and former Vice President Joe Biden (if Biden decides to run).
“I don’t think he’s a household name,” Gonzales said of Bennet.
Ron Bonjean, a longtime Washington Republican strategist, said Bennet has an “uphill battle right at the offset.”
The biggest challenges he’ll have will be “raising his name ID above the rest of the pack” and raising the cash needed to run what’s certain to be a pricey campaign.
“There’s a scramble going on,” Bonjean said. And waiting to jump into the race could make it harder. “If’ you’re going to carve out a name for yourself, you better do it sooner rather than later.”
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, called Bennet a “perfectly fine Democrat.”
He welcomed Bennet’s calls to expand Social Security, for example, describing the Colorado senator as a “helpful symbol for the center of gravity having moved in the Democratic Party.”
Having Bennet in the mix Green said, “gives people a choice between good progress and transformational figures.” Green, whose group has endorsed Warren in the 2020 race, sees her as a transformational figure.
Hughes, Bennet’s adviser, said the senator’s “political skills are often underrated.”
“He brings a record of progressive accomplishments and working to create lasting solutions on issues such as immigration, climate change [and] education,” Hughes added. He pointed to Bennet’s “unique vantage point,” having served as a school superintendent and in the private sector as as managing director for the Anschutz Investment Company.
Bennet has an interesting personal background, too. He was born in India, where his father worked for the U.S. ambassador. His brother, James Bennet, is the editorial-page director for The New York Times. His mother and grandparents were Polish Holocaust survivors.
“I think all the candidates are looking for their unique place in the race,” Gonzales said of the Democratic contenders. “There are so many candidates, there are so many people within each group.”
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who worked for Harry Reid (D-Nev.) when he was Senate majority leader, said Bennet would likely frame himself among the more moderate Democrats running.
“The progressive hard-core left lane is pretty filled up right now, so I would assume if he tried to get in, he would try to take a tack that’s more centrist,” Manley said.
On Capitol Hill, Bennet has “managed to survive a pretty hyperpartisan environment as a somewhat centrist Democrat, so it shows me that he’s got some pretty thick skin,” Manley added. “If the Senate was filled with more Michael Bennets, it would be a better place.”
Bennet wouldn’t have much to lose by running, Gonzales said.
“I think it is an opportunity to boost your profile, get on a debate stage, try to push a specific cause,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of consequences to running at this early stage as long as you don’t embarrass yourself.”