The Midterms Have Rebuilt Democrats’ Presidential Bench

Sen. Raphael Warnock is the latest option among a host of swing-state governors and superstar senators ready for when the party moves past Joe Biden.

WASHINGTON – The 2022 midterms have rebuilt the Democrats’ presidential bench, providing the party with a host of ideological, geographical and biographical options for the party’s next nominee after Joe Biden — be that sooner or later.

While November’s midterms were far from a complete success — Republicans took control of the U.S. House — Democrats won most of the country’s marquee swing-state Senate and gubernatorial contests, with presidential buzz developing around some of the victors even before their races were called.

Two events this week highlight this new bench: The reelection of Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) in a runoff on Tuesday night put the spotlight on one of the party’s highest-profile Black leaders. And the Democratic Governors’ Association’s conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, featured a host of would-be presidential contenders.

“There’s no question that we have a new generation ready and prepared to serve,” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic National Committee member and long-time party strategist who managed Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000. “We’ve got a lot of good candidates who are primed and ready.”

The full list of names who won in November is dizzying and diverse. Want a moderate senator with a compelling personal story who’s won reelection in a tough state? Here’s Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly. Want a candidate from a traditional battleground who’s shown a pathway for defeating extremist Republicans? Take a look at Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro. How about taking another run at electing the first woman to the presidency? Meet Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or Massachusetts Gov.-elect Maura Healey.

While Biden is seen as likely to run again in 2024, party strategists are excited the “bridge to a new generation” the president once promised finally seems to be at least under construction and that there are options beyond Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

“For a while, it was looking a little rough,” said Mo Elleithee, another DNC member who was a top aide on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. “But we’re starting to see a real bench that is geographically diverse. We’re seeing some big Western stars emerging, some Southern stars emerging, some Midwestern stars emerging.”

Biden’s proposed elevation of South Carolina to vote first in the next primary (at least for the 2024 cycle) is putting more focus on Warnock and other potential Black candidates, including the obvious, like Harris, to the still-obscure, like Maryland Gov.-Elect Wes Moore.

Before we go further, let’s also issue a reminder: Most of the people named in this article will not become president. Most of them will never even become the Democratic nominee. Some could face horrific scandals in the coming years. Many will not end up running for president. Others will run and struggle to raise money or convince more than five people to attend a town hall in Manchester, New Hampshire.

And projecting the political mood of the Democratic Party, or the country more broadly, in 2024 or 2028 is a fool’s errand at best. Until Biden’s plans are clear, no one knows when the next open Democratic presidential primary will be.

“People didn’t even know who Pete Buttigieg was at the beginning of the 2020 cycle,” said Rebecca Katz, the founder of the Democratic firm New Deal Strategies. “This is all so, so, so far away.”

‘Presidential Material’

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer led her party to total control of state government for the first time in decades.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer led her party to total control of state government for the first time in decades.
Rebecca Cook via Reuters

The panel assembled at the opening of the Democratic Governors’ Association could have easily doubled as an audition for “America’s Next Top Presidential Contender.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, the association’s chair, has long been tossed about as presidential timber. Shapiro, who has been discussed as the nation’s first Jewish president since he was in local government, was also on stage. So was Whitmer, the Michigander who ran on abortion rights and led Democrats to full control of the state’s government for the first time in decades. And then there was Maryland Gov.-elect Wes Moore, an Oprah-endorsed author and executive with a glittering resume, including a Rhodes Scholarship and an Army deployment to Afghanistan.

None are owning up to any presidential interest just yet, and Cooper said “Joe Biden” when a reporter asked who among them would be the next president.

But in an interview a few days earlier, Cooper was bullish on the role governors could play.

“After President Biden has served in his second term, I do believe there are numerous future leaders of the Democratic Party among the governors,” Cooper said. “You have governors who are certainly presidential material and could be U.S. senators or cabinet members. Serving as governor gives you all the prerequisite experience you need for any of those positions.”

There are other governors who could run for the presidency who weren’t in New Orleans. Govs. Gavin Newsom of California and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois have clear national ambitions and easily won reelection last month. National operatives are also keeping an eye on Massachusetts Gov.-elect Maura Healey.

Any major role for governors in the next presidential primary would be a dramatic shift from the 2020 race when Democratic governors played little to no role. Not a single governor even qualified for a debate later than June 2019. The disappearance of governors then seemed to be the culmination of a years-long trend in both parties of senators replacing governors as leading presidential contenders.

Republicans, for instance, have recently seen a group of promising governors come and go with little presidential impact. The party was dominant on the gubernatorial level during President Barack Obama’s administration, only to see Govs. Scott Walker (Wis.), Bobby Jindal (La.) and Chris Christie (N.J.) all flame out on the presidential level. The governor who made it the furthest in the 2016 presidential race — Ohio’s John Kasich — is estranged from the party and endorsed Biden in 2020.

Superstar Senators

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), a former astronaut, is generating presidential buzz after a second straight victory in a tight race in a key swing state.
Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), a former astronaut, is generating presidential buzz after a second straight victory in a tight race in a key swing state.
via Associated Press

Much of Warnock’s victory speech on Tuesday night would be familiar to anyone who watched him campaign in 2020 or 2022 — but most Democrats did not have the opportunity to hear his stump speech then.

“I am grateful that my mother, Pastor Verlene Warnock, is here tonight,” Warnock said, emphasizing the sweep of history leading to his election. “A teenager growing up in Waycross, Georgia, she used to pick somebody else’s cotton and tobacco. Tonight, she helped pick her youngest son to be a United States senator.”

Rhetoric like that — which multiple Democratic strategists noted recalls former President Barack Obama — combined with a voting record acceptable to all of the party’s varying ideological wings has quickly generated buzz around a future Warnock bid. (The fact that Biden’s plan makes Georgia — a state rich in delegates — one of the first states to vote doesn’t hurt either.)

“If I had to choose today, and if Biden wasn’t running, who the best case scenario is for progressives in ’24, I would choose Warnock,” said Max Berger, a Democratic strategist who worked on Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign in 2020.

The rules of the Democratic primary process give outsized weight to Southern Black voters, who have powered Obama, Clinton and Biden to primary victories. While Black presidential candidates are no longer a novelty in the Democratic Party, Warnock would be the first major Black candidate from the South. And his leadership of Ebenezer Baptist Church would give him an instant entree with the pastors who often function as political gatekeepers in the region.

Warnock is not the only triumphant Democratic Senate candidate with presidential buzz. Sen.-elect John Fetterman, who turned his theoretical appeal to blue-collar voters into reality with a thumping of Republican Mehmet Oz, had long been mentioned as a presidential contender, but his ongoing recovery from a stroke has muted that talk for now.

Kelly, an astronaut with an inspiring personal story of helping his wife recover from a mass shooting and a sterling electoral record, has also developed his fan base among Democratic strategists. And even the oft-overlooked Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) has been thrown around by Democrats looking for a Latina presidential contender.

In the case of Kelly, Warnock and Cortez Masto, there is a reason to think they won’t run. Warnock has long told allies he has no intention of abandoning the pulpit, a near-certain requirement of making a presidential bid. Kelly is still raw as a politician. Cortez-Masto pulled her name out of contention for vice president in 2020.

Finally, Buttigieg’s success in knocking down traditional barriers to running for president means candidates could emerge from unexpected places. Some strategists mentioned Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, who parlayed a viral speech on gay and transgender rights into mild stardom. Others suggested former Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) could parlay a potential role leading House Democrats’ campaign arm into another presidential bid.

All of these candidates, however, will face a barrier in the form of Harris. Vice presidents eventually become their party’s presidential nominee: 8 of the 11 to serve from 1952 to 2016 did so. And the various way-too-early polls of a post-Biden primary field show her dominant with Black voters.

“It’s a dangerous thing to predict the weather this far out,” said Antujuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. “But this primary calendar will benefit someone with a long-standing relationship with Black voters, someone who is battle-tested. Vice President Harris is primed to do very well in South Carolina.”

Daniel Marans contributed reporting.

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