WASHINGTON — Senators running for president have instant advantages. They’re political stars. They’re the darlings of Washington, where dozens of reporters mob them every time they wait for a Capitol elevator or cross a street.
The candidates are welcome guests on friendly talk shows. They can dart in and out of hearings, make unchallenged statements on Twitter about anything they want and then see them go viral.
And most important, “They have the advantage of name ID and an ability to raise money,” said Scott Brennan, a Democratic National Committee member from Iowa.
Four U.S. senators — Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey — are seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is expected to announce Sunday whether she’s running. Other lawmakers are possibilities.
There are, of course, significant perils. The senators have to defend not only their records, but also constantly risk making the sort of incendiary comment outside those elevators that blows up on social media.
But the road is not as bumpy as it has been through history. Until Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, no incumbent member of Congress had gone directly from Capitol Hill to the White House since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Today, lawmakers can have several friendly vehicles where they can perpetually fashion themselves as passionate, likeable, deep-thinking public figures.
Take Gillibrand, for example.
She was a House member from a fairly conservative upstate New York district from 2007 until 2009, when she was appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton.
As a House member, Gillibrand was regarded as sympathetic to gun rights, receiving an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. Since becoming a senator, she’s been a strong gun control advocate and the NRA has given her an “F.”
She’s made a public series of explanations. She told CBS’ “60 Minutes” last year she was “embarrassed” by her previous views on guns. Last month, she went on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” a must-stop for Democratic presidential candidates, and explained her shift.
“I recognized I didn’t know everything about the whole state,” Gillibrand said.
Last week, Gillibrand took her image-building to a more intimate setting, a house party in Portsmouth, N.H. About 25 people were there, including many Democratic officials from what’s traditionally the nation’s first primary state. People asked about issues, but were most interested in getting a sense of her authenticity.
“I asked about her value system,” said Laurie McCray, Portsmouth Democratic chairwoman.
Gillibrand brought up her views on guns, explaining how she had grown up in a culture where guns were routinely used.
She mentioned her role in the Al Franken controversy. Gillibrand was the first senator to call on Franken, a Minnesota senator, to resign after photos surfaced showing him groping a woman.
A lot of Democratic colleagues weren’t pleased that Franken, respected for his work on party issues, was pressured. Gillibrand discussed her work on strengthening laws against sexual assaults, a constant theme in her Twitter feed.
What lingered after the evening was that “she was passionate about the issues she cares about,” said Larry Drake, Rockingham County Democratic chairman.
Gillibrand followed a familiar script: Go public in friendly forums, building a reputation as a devoted fighter for certain issues, then gently take the time to explain to the activists who are influential in these early campaign stages that you’re sincere. Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The danger for a candidate lurks if a past position or stumble is too raw to overcome, or it feeds an already-lingering widespread doubt, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.
So here’s how experts are advising the candidates to use their Senate platform:
DO STUFF THAT GOES VIRAL
The Senate Judiciary Committee is a popular place to attract attention. It not only debates the day’s hottest issues, including immigration and voting rights, but also considers nominees for the Supreme Court, attorney general and federal judgeships.
Harris, Booker and Klobuchar are members, and they’ve taken full advantage.
Harris used the platform to help her leap to national stardom during last year’s hearings on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, who would become a Supreme Court justice.
She grilled him on whether he had been talking with a law firm with ties to President Donald Trump about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.
“I’m not remembering,” Kavanaugh said. Harris was irate. Kavanaugh pressed her to name a person she had in mind. Harris would not relent.
“I think you are thinking of someone, and you don’t want to tell us,” she said.
BE ONE OF THE PEOPLE
Empathy matters. Booker frequently cites his urban roots, and his Judiciary perch offers a public way to make the point.
During a Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of William Barr as attorney general, Booker pointed out, “I’m the only United States senator that lives in an inner city, low-income community. I’ve had shootings in my neighborhood, a young man killed last year on my block with an assault weapon.” Booker lives in Newark, N.J.
Gillibrand used a session of an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing to talk about the history of Interstate 81 in Syracuse.
She called the highway an example of an interstate highway that “segregated marginalized communities and limited their economic opportunities.”
SHOW YOU KNOW FOREIGN AFFAIRS
“We’re here today to talk about the strategic challenges presented by Russia and China,” Warren said as she prepared to quiz China expert Ely Ratner Jan. 29 at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Warren questioned him on whether the government shutdown would make the United States more or less competitive with China.
Ratner pointed out that Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, had asked the same question.
But he answered anyway, explaining that there are economic costs that affect U.S. competitiveness with China.
BOND WITH THE BASE
Klobuchar told a Washington news conference last month she’s on the side of working people, urging legislation to get back pay for federal contractors.
A plan by Sen. Tina Smith, a Minnesota Democrat, would provide full back pay to lower wage workers and partial pay to others. Unlike federal workers, they are not due back pay lost during the 35-day partial federal government shutdown that ended Jan. 25.
“This is actual people who are just doing their jobs that are indistinguishable often from the full-time employees in terms of the work that they do,” Klobuchar said.
Harris has used Judiciary to make a push for civil rights as a cornerstone of her campaign. She grilled witnesses about Justice’s civil rights efforts, and got Barr to agree that he would meet with civil rights groups within 120 days “to understand the ramifications of any policies.”
AVOID CONTROVERSIAL VOTES
Such votes aren’t the big problem of yore, since most congressional votes today involve partisan initiatives. Largely gone are the catch-all types of packages where a lawmaker might have to accept something unacceptable in return for what he wants.
Catch-all votes, though, could be coming. Chances are Congress will vote on a spending package as soon as next week, and this spring will start considering spending bills to fund the government after Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year.
There is a time-tested 21st-century way to avoid controversy: Stay away.
In 2016, the senators most absent from votes were presidential candidates Republicans Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham and Independent Bernie Sanders, who ran as a Democrat. The missed votes clearly didn’t hurt. Cruz, Rubio and Sanders were all re-elected once their White House bids failed. Graham is up in 2020.
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PHOTOS (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): Gillibrand, Harris, Warren, Booker