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High anxiety: Jittery Democrats fear their candidate won't beat Trump

Image: Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren speaks at Broughton High School in Raleigh, NC on Nov. 7, 2019. Copyright Bryan Cereijo The News & Observer via AP
Copyright Bryan Cereijo The News & Observer via AP
By Alex Seitz-Wald with NBC News Politics
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Acknowledging the concern, former President Barack Obama told his party's moderates to chill and the left to get more realistic.


WASHINGTON — The offer: A $1 million check from a major Democratic donor to a major Democratic group. The one condition: The money would be refunded if Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren becomes the party's nominee.

That offer was rejected, according to an official familiar with it, but it was indicative of the larger anxiety felt by many in Democratic party's elite circles about the state of 2020 Democratic presidential field. "Ninety to 95 percent of our donor base is terrified about Warren," said a prominent Democratic official.

Democrats, often prone to fretting about elections, have been increasingly worried that their large and divided presidential field, currently led by four imperfect frontrunners, doesn't have what it takes to beat President Donald Trump next year.

They worry that: Biden is too old and stumbling; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, is too young and too inexperienced; and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are too far left and can't win. And they tend to write off the rest of the field, assuming that if those contenders haven't caught on yet, they never will.

That angst reached a fever pitch this week and helped push one new candidate and another potential challenger from the party's more moderate wing into the race — former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who announced he's running, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who's thinking about it — just ahead of a New Hampshire filing deadline,which essentially barred the door to new candidates when it expired at 5:00 p.m. on Friday.

Former President Barack Obama, who is loath to speak publicly about internal party politics, felt the need tell an influential group of donors on Friday night to essentially calm down,while also warning progressives that the country is "less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement."

"Democratic voters and certainly persuadable independents or even moderate Republicans are not driven by the same views that are reflected on certain, you know, left-leaning Twitter feeds or the activist wing of our party," Obama said at the private meeting of the Democracy Alliance donor group at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington.

"That's not a criticism to the activist wing. Their job is to poke and prod and test and inspire and motivate," he continued. "But the candidate's job, whoever it ends up being, is to get elected."

And Obama reminded them that he faced his own messy primary and won.

"Not only did I win ultimately a remarkably tough and lengthy primary process with Hillary Clinton, but people forget that even before that we had a big field of really serious, accomplished people," he said.

Not everyone is so sure, though, even though polls show all of the party's frontrunners beating Trump at the moment in head-to-head tests.

"With stakes this high in the election, Democrats from coast to coast are in search of the perfect candidate," said Rufus Gifford, the former national finance director for Obama's 2012 re-election campaign and ambassador to Denmark. "That person doesn't exist. He or she never has."

Democratic voters have expressed little interest in expanding the field. Eighty-fight percent said they "very" or "somewhat" satisfied with their options in aSeptember NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, while other surveys have found a sizable number of Democrats wanting to winnow their options.

But many party insiders, who have watched the field take shape and studied the candidates closely, feel none of them measure up to Obama, who remains the model presidential candidate for many in the party.

"Donors are casting around for someone who can fill those shoes because they feel that Joe Biden hasn't closed the deal yet," said David Brock, a Democratic fundraiser who runs a constellation of progressive groups, including Media Matters and American Bridge. "Donors are always kind of anxious, it's in their DNA. They're nervous that Biden has proven to be a shaky frontrunner and they're nervous about the rise of Elizabeth Warren and/or Bernie Sanders."

President Barack Obama waves as he is followed by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, right, upon his arrival on Air Force One at Logan Airport in Boston on March 5, 2014.
President Barack Obama waves as he is followed by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, right, upon his arrival on Air Force One at Logan Airport in Boston on March 5, 2014.Charles Krupa

And they looked around for other potential white knights:

  • Hillary Clinton? "I'm under enormous pressure from many, many, many people to think about it," the 2016 presidential nominee told the BBC.
  • Stacey Abrams? "I've been urged to reconsider. I have said no," the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate said at lunch at the National Press Club.
  • Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown? "How many times do I have to answer this question? No. No, no, no," Brown, who had considered running earlier this year before deciding against it, told reporters in the Capitol.

In some circles, the search is driven largely driven by deep concerns that Warren or Sanders would fall to Trump and would be an albatross around the neck of Democratic candidates running for the Senate and House in 2020.

A new analysis by political scientist Alan Abromivitz found that support for Medicare for All, the single-payer health care plan Warren and Sanders favor, could have cost Democratic congressional candidates as much as 5 percentage points in the 2018 midterms.

Some on the left wonder which is scarier to donors: Warren or Sanders losing to Trump or winning against him and raising their taxes.


"Makes you wonder if they're trying to save us from Trump or are they really just trying to save themselves from Bernie and Warren," said Rebecca Katz, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who now advises insurgent progressive candidates.

Warren's campaign has begun selling mugs to drink "billionaire tears" and engaged in public fights with wealthy financiers who feel, as many of them did under Obama as well, that they're being unfairly targeted.

Former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, one of the more prominent Democrats on Wall Street, condemned Warren's incivility against the wealthy while taking a not-so-subtle shot at the controversy over her Native American ancestry and DNA test.

Patrick Murray, the pollster who runs the well-regarded Monmouth University poll, said the unsettled state of the field is not uncommon, historically, and more a product of voters waiting to chose a candidate than not liking any of them.


"It's not a sign of weakness," he said.

Needless to say, the new entries are frustrating to candidates who have been pitching themselves for months, as alternatives to Biden on one hand and Warren and Sanders on the other, just as Patrick is now.

Obama himself praised the current field and said he was sure that in the end, "we will have a candidate who has been tested and will be able to proudly carry the Democratic banner."

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