As Bloomberg hov­ers, Democrats keep fret­ting

With the clock tick­ing, party is sec­ond-guess­ing who can beat Trump

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MATT VISER, MICHELLE YE HEE LEE, AN­NIE LINSKEY AND MICHAEL SCHERER

Even for a party ac­cus­tomed to an anx­ious donor and po­lit­i­cal class — a group of sec­ond-guessers that Obama ad­viser David Plouffe fa­mously called the “bed wet­ters” — bil­lion­aire Michael Bloomberg’s likely en­try into the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial pri­mary has su­per­charged a de­bate over whether the party has the right can­di­dates, whether the time for en­tries has passed, and whether yet other can­di­dates could raise the moun­tain of cash needed for a cred­i­ble cam­paign.

Bloomberg’s de­ci­sion, fu­eled by his dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the race’s lead­ing mod­er­ate, for­mer vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, and wor­ries about the rise of lib­eral leader El­iz­a­beth War­ren, in­jected re­newed volatil­ity into the pri­mary race just three months be­fore vot­ing be­gins with the Iowa cau­cuses.

Bi­den’s donors are grow­ing more con­cerned about his stand­ing — even as some of them be­gin to write six-fig­ure checks in the hope that a newly formed su­per PAC can prop up a flag­ging can­di­dacy that is now fur­ther threat­ened by Bloomberg’s po­ten­tial en­trance. War­ren and her al­lies, mean­while, wel­comed a bil­lion­aire foil whom they hope to use to drive home her pop­ulist mes­sage. None­the­less, polling this week show­ing her los­ing to Trump in crit­i­cal up­per Mid­west­ern states sent a thun­der­bolt of fear through even some of her boost­ers. “It’s a mix in all these cases of

three things: ner­vous­ness about War­ren as a gen­eral elec­tion can­di­date, ner­vous­ness about Bi­den as a pri­mary can­di­date . . . and fun­da­men­tal ner­vous­ness about Trump and some­how the party will blow the race,” said the Demo­cratic con­sul­tant David Ax­el­rod. “That’s re­ally a lot of what’s mo­ti­vat­ing donors and ac­tivists.”

Bloomberg’s sud­den in­ter­est was driven by loom­ing dead­lines to file paper­work to get on statewide bal­lots. The cal­en­dar also will force the hand of any other po­ten­tial en­trants, a group that must have ei­ther wealth or an ex­ist­ing po­lit­i­cal net­work to repli­cate can­di­da­cies that in some cases have been hus­tling for sup­port for nearly a year.

Names be­ing floated as po­ten­tial can­di­dates in­clude for­mer Mas­sachusetts gov­er­nor De­val Pa­trick and for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney gen­eral Eric H. Holder Jr. For­mer sec­re­tary of state John F. Kerry, the party’s 2004 nom­i­nee, also has been men­tioned, although peo­ple close to him in­sist that he will not en­ter the race.

The party’s 2016 nom­i­nee, Hil­lary Clin­ton, was field­ing calls in re­cent days about whether to get into the race, some close to her said. While it is still un­likely that she will run, some al­lies have gone so far as to talk about a po­ten­tial path­way that would by­pass Iowa and New Hamp­shire and fo­cus on mak­ing a stand in South Carolina.

Bloomberg on Fri­day an­nounced a sim­i­lar po­ten­tial plan, with an ad­viser say­ing that if Bloomberg did run, he would not ag­gres­sively com­pete in the first four states, an unortho­dox strat­egy that, for those who have tried it, has led to elec­toral de­feat. The an­nounce­ment sug­gested that Bloomberg planned to un­cork his cam­paign for the March 3 Su­per Tues­day pri­maries, at which point the race cov­ers mul­ti­ple states at a stag­ger­ing cost to can­di­dates.

“The late tim­ing of our en­try means that many can­di­dates al­ready have a big head start in the four early states, where they’ve spent months and months cam­paign­ing and spend­ing money,” said the Bloomberg ad­viser, Howard Wolf­son. “We have enor­mous re­spect for the Demo­cratic pri­mary process and many friends in those states, but our plan is to run a broad-based, na­tional cam­paign.”

The de­ci­sion quickly drew scorn from early-state of­fi­cials, with New Hamp­shire Demo­cratic Party chair­man Ray Buck­ley say­ing they were “dis­ap­pointed and frankly very sur­prised” by Bloomberg’s move.

“It’s un­for­tu­nate that Michael Bloomberg doesn’t want to par­tic­i­pate in this in­valu­able, im­por­tant and unique pri­mary process and be tested the same way that the other Demo­cratic can­di­dates have been and will be,” Buck­ley said in a state­ment.

Not every­one in the party bought into the flurry of worry. Sev­eral polls have in­di­cated that Demo­cratic vot­ers are largely sat­is­fied with the cur­rent field, although 22 per­cent of mod­er­ates in a Mon­mouth Uni­ver­sity sur­vey re­leased Wed­nes­day said they would like to see some­one else run — which is twice the num­ber of lib­er­als who feel that way.

“Democrats, we are kvetch­ers. We kvetch. We are anx­ious,” said Randi Wein­garten, the pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers. “We dwell in our anx­i­ety and our what-ifs. We should just let the process run.”

Bi­den on Fri­day be­came the lat­est of a pa­rade of can­di­dates to make the trek to the sec­re­tary of state’s of­fice in Con­cord, N.H., for the qua­dren­nial rit­ual of fil­ing paper­work to get on the bal­lot.

“Wel­come to the race. Michael’s a solid guy. I have no prob­lem with him be­ing in the race,” Bi­den told re­porters about Bloomberg. “Also, in all those states that are swing states, if I’m not mis­taken, I’m do­ing pretty well rel­a­tive to Trump and rel­a­tive to all the peo­ple run­ning.”

“Look at all the polls,” he added. “I’m lead­ing across the board. And so I don’t quite get this.”

As his cam­paign sought to pro­ject con­fi­dence, it made no ap­par­ent effort to al­le­vi­ate the con­cerns of skit­tish sup­port­ers who have pri­vately be­gun dis­cussing their wor­ries. Even if they don’t think Bloomberg will be­come the nom­i­nee, they worry about the dam­age he might do to Bi­den’s can­di­dacy.

For­mer Penn­syl­va­nia gov­er­nor Ed Ren­dell, a prom­i­nent Bi­den backer, said the for­mer vice pres­i­dent needs to per­form well in the first four states — Iowa, New Hamp­shire, Ne­vada and South Carolina — to fend off Bloomberg, whose can­di­dacy Ren­dell said could ap­peal to him and oth­ers look­ing for po­ten­tial al­ter­na­tives in case Bi­den does not have a clear path to the nom­i­na­tion.

“If Joe doesn’t suc­ceed early on, then I think that’s a dan­ger,” Ren­dell said. “I’m happy that there’s an­other al­ter­na­tive if Joe doesn’t win.”

War­ren on Fri­day largely avoided any dis­cus­sion about Demo­cratic skit­tish­ness and whether she would do more to an­swer lin­ger­ing ques­tions about her gen­eral elec­tion prospects.

Bloomberg’s in­di­ca­tion of in­ter­est was driven by con­cerns about the per­for­mance of Demo­cratic can­di­dates and worry about the im­pact on Bi­den of the im­peach­ment in­quiry and of War­ren’s han­dling of Medi­care-for-all.

Bloomberg’s con­cern was said to be not just the health-care pol­icy, which is un­pop­u­lar among some mod­er­ate Democrats, but also with War­ren’s in­abil­ity to mar­ket it. He saw those fac­tors as likely to re­elect Trump.

“He didn’t just wake up and say, ‘Oh my God, the so­cial­ists are go­ing to be run­ning the coun­try; I bet­ter run for pres­i­dent,’ ” Wolf­son said. “He woke up and said, ‘ Oh my God, Don­ald Trump is go­ing to be re­elected; I bet­ter run for pres­i­dent.’ ”

Bloomberg’s path­way to the nom­i­na­tion is dif­fi­cult; the for­mer Re­pub­li­can and in­de­pen­dent car­ries sub­stan­tial bag­gage from his years as mayor of New York City and from his busi­ness ca­reer.

A self-fi­nanced Bloomberg can­di­dacy would re­in­force crit­i­cism oth­ers in the race have lev­eled about the dis­pro­por­tion­ate in­flu­ence of the wealthy in the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal process.

He has de­fended stop-and-frisk polic­ing that civil rights groups de­nounce as racist, has a his­tory of sex­ual ha­rass­ment cases at his com­pany that could prove a li­a­bil­ity in the #Metoo era and has long been a critic of pub­lic la­bor unions, a key Demo­cratic con­stituency, when they refuse to rene­go­ti­ate their pen­sion plans or to weaken workplace pro­tec­tions for teach­ers in pub­lic schools.

He made his money sell­ing tech­nol­ogy to Wall Street banks, and he has also been crit­i­cal of the Dodd-frank reg­u­la­tion en­acted by Democrats un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

“A field that in­cludes both El­iz­a­beth and Mayor Bloomberg will crys­tal­lize the de­bate over eco­nomic in­equal­ity and con­cen­trated wealth,” said U.S. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-MD.), a close friend of War­ren’s.

But Bloomberg could do sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to Bi­den, whose cam­paign has al­ready fore­cast that Bi­den could lose the early states but would bounce back in South Carolina and on Su­per Tues­day, when black vot­ers would play a larger role.

By for­go­ing the early states, Bloomberg could dump sig­nif­i­cant re­sources into the states where the most del­e­gates will be amassed even as he helps War­ren de­fine her­self in ways help­ful to at­tract­ing lib­eral vot­ers.

“The two hap­pi­est peo­ple in Amer­ica to­day are El­iz­a­beth War­ren and Don­ald Trump, be­cause ev­ery vote that Bloomberg gets is a vote that only Joe Bi­den would have got­ten. That makes El­iz­a­beth War­ren happy,” said Bi­den backer John Mor­gan, an Or­lando lawyer and prom­i­nent Demo­cratic donor.

The un­der­cur­rent of Bloomberg’s de­ci­sion is the wide­spread sense, even among sup­port­ers, that Bi­den has been a weaker-than-ex­pected pri­mary can­di­date.

Dick Har­pootlian, a Demo­cratic state se­na­tor in South Carolina and a long­time Bi­den sup­porter, said he do­nated six fig­ures to the su­per PAC sup­port­ing him, Unite the Coun­try. The su­per PAC will be in a po­si­tion “to help dra­mat­i­cally,” he said, es­ti­mat­ing that it would spend $10 mil­lion to $20 mil­lion in the four early states.

Bi­den donor and fundraiser Steve Westly said Bloomberg has bona fide gov­ern­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and net worth that is mul­ti­ple times greater than Trump’s and could eas­ily self-fund his cam­paign while ap­peal­ing to both par­ties.

“Ev­ery­body in the race — Bi­den, War­ren, Trump — needs to take this se­ri­ously,” said Westly, a for­mer Cal­i­for­nia state con­troller and a Sil­i­con Val­ley in­vestor.

Bloomberg “may not be the fa­vorite of the right or the left, but he is for­mi­da­ble.”

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