The rumors had been circulating for months. Was Sen. Michael Bennet, the reserved, policy-driven Democrat from Colorado, going to throw his hat into the crowded field of presidential hopefuls?
The signs were all there: The viral moment on the Senate floor. The tentative campaign stops in Iowa. The speculations from reporters and cable news pundits. The relaunch of a health care plan with a fellow high-ranking senator. The book release in June. For those familiar with reading the waves of presidential campaigns, Bennet’s announcement seemed inevitable.
But when the announcement arrived late Wednesday evening, it came as a shock. The senator had been diagnosed last month with prostate cancer.
While such a diagnosis is never easy, Bennet’s prognosis is good, according to his statement. The senator will return to Colorado to undergo surgery during the Senate’s upcoming recess starting April 11, his announcement said. After a short recovery period, he’s expected to return to work.
And, if all goes well, he will be returning to the campaign trail.
Shortly after Bennet’s announcement, The Colorado Independent published an exclusive interview with the senator. The takeaway: Bennet still intended to announce a presidential campaign, if he received the cancer-free bill of health after surgery.
The original plan, according to the article, had been to announce his campaign in April. They had hired staff and interviewed people in New Hampshire and Iowa. But then came the diagnosis almost three weeks ago. Yet, Bennet confirmed his intention to enter the pool of Democratic hopefuls.
In his interview with the Independent’s Mike Littwin, Bennet said writing his book – “The Land of the Flickering Lights” – was a catalyst for his decision to run. “I didn’t think the case that I made in the book was being articulated by anyone in the field. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think I had a chance to win. I think, like everyone else does, it’s a long shot. But I think everyone in the field is a long shot.”
Bennet goes ‘viral’The speculations of a potential presidential bid were already quietly brewing in late 2018. The Associated Press reported in November that Bennet was in talks with “influential Iowa Democrats.” A month later, Colorado Public Radio quoted three anonymous sources close to the senator who said Bennet was “seriously thinking” about a 2020 run for president.
The rumors of a presidential campaign from the reserved senator crept into the light after Bennet’s viral speech on the Senate floor in January. As the government was stalled in its 34th day of a federal shutdown, Bennet made waves Jan. 24 when he accused Sen. Ted Cruz of “crocodile tears” and causing the 2013 government shutdown while Colorado suffered the consequences.
People unfamiliar with Bennet took notice of the senator’s raised voice and passionate takedown of a prominent Republican senator, often closely associated with President Donald Trump. Shortly after Bennet’s speech, he was asked about his presidential prospects by MSNBC’s Chuck Todd. At the time, Bennet laughed it off, saying, “I’m thinking about it, Todd, just like every single other person in this building is thinking about it.”
For those who have watched the normally mild Bennet in the Senate for the past 10 years, the increased passion he’s shown in recent floor speeches has been unmistakable. Since that first viral speech, there have been subsequent trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, and the continued buzz around his prospects has reached the mainstream media.
There’s no denying Bennet’s viral moment on the Senate floor probably helped his name-recognition, but it might not be enough, according to Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political analysis newsletter at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“That may have introduced Bennet to a larger audience, but he has a ton of work to do to make himself truly known nationally,” Kondik said in an email to The Durango Herald.
The fieldIt’s hard to pinpoint a lead Democratic candidate with 17 individuals already announced and an additional three likely to run, including former-Vice President Joe Biden, according to The New York Times.
But according to Kondik, it almost certainly wouldn’t be Bennet. “Many of the other candidates would start ahead of Bennet, who is not a well-known figure in national politics, or even in the Democratic Party.”
It will be a struggle for any one Democrat to stand out in such a crowded field of candidates. But Bennet has a few additional challenges to overcome in a prospective presidential campaign, said Nathan Gonzales, the editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter analyzing campaigns.
“He’s far from the only senator in the field, and he’s not even the only candidate from Colorado,” Gonzales said, referring to John Hickenlooper, the former governor. Hickenlooper, a close friend of Bennet’s, announced his candidacy at the beginning of March. Bennet once served as his chief of staff when Hickenlooper was mayor of Denver.
Bennet, who also served as superintendent of Denver’s public schools, could potentially promote his executive, non-Washington experience before becoming senator to stand out from the pack, Gonzales said.
But even promoting that background would put his potential campaign in the cross path of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Gonzales said. Buttigieg, who was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and a strategy consultant, has been gaining momentum in the past few weeks.
One platform that could benefit Bennet, if he decides to run, will be the Democratic debates starting in late June. It would be a chance for him to break through the crowded field, Kondik said.
“He and other long-shot candidates will benefit from the debate format in the sense that, so long as he meets the minimal criteria to qualify for inclusion, he won’t have to suffer the indignity of a ‘kid’s table’ debate,” Kondik said, referring to the low-polling Republicans who were relegated to a separate debate cycle in 2016.
The debates would also provide Bennet the chance to increase his household name-recognition. This will be one of his biggest challenges, said Jim Kessler, vice president of policy at ThirdWay, a think tank promoting center-left ideas. “They have to get to know him,” he said. “It’s a wide field, and he’s not well-known.”
ElectabilityFor many voters, the best candidate for 2020 boils down to one characteristic: who can beat Trump. A recent poll by USA TODAY found 48 percent of Democratic and independent voters wanted “a candidate who can win, even if different from my priorities.”
At a house party in New Hampshire, Bennet decried the idea of expanding the Supreme Court and the candidates who have endorsed it, according to a Washington Post article on March 18. The idea, known as court-packing, has rallied more-moderate Republicans against Democrats who support the plan.
“Look, we’ve got to nominate somebody who can beat Donald Trump. That means we have a responsibility not to do ourselves in,” Bennet said at the event.
But the question of electability could benefit Bennet.
“He’s from a part of the country that means a lot to the Democratic Party,” Kessler said. “And he passes the test of someone who could beat Donald Trump because he appeals to both moderates and progressives.”
“At the end of the day, I believe the 2020 Democratic candidacy is going to be won by the candidate that can make the best argument for beating President Trump,” said Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America. The organization, which consists of Democrats, Republicans and independents, is committed to finding “more political leaders that put country over party,” Troiano said.
For many voters, Bennet could represent a candidate who can put country over party, Troiano said. “The center of gravity has shifted to the extremes in the party, and candidates like Sen. Bennet can hopefully help to shift that back,” he said.
Centrist: Asset or liability?But Troiano warns there could be a danger in being identified as the centrist or moderate candidate. “It’s harder for voters to get as excited about centrist candidates,” he said.
More recognized candidates like Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris have the potential to have a broad-based progressive appeal. Kessler and others would argue Bennet could, too. “I think he can play in both the progressive lane and the centrist lane,” he said. “He’s one of the few that can play both.”
Bennet’s sponsorship of policies like his child tax credit and Medicare-X, have the potential for crossover appeal from both parties, Kessler said.
Perhaps as a foreshadow of a Bennet campaign, the senator, alongside Sen. Tim Kaine, reintroduced their health care proposal, Medicare-X, on Tuesday. The bill would provide an additional public option administered by Medicare that anyone could buy. It’s an option the senators say is more feasible than the “Medicare for all” proposal originally launched by Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016 and championed by many 2020 candidates.
While Bennet has been passionate about health care throughout his decade in the Senate, his interview with Littwin in the Independent hints at a new personal commitment to ensuring everyone has access to affordable health care. Bennet said his recent diagnosis was “a reminder of how important it is for people to have health insurance and to have primary care checkups.”
Troiano of Unite America also emphasized the importance of an initiative-driven campaign shaped around issues that can excite voters, like Medicare-X, for moderate candidates like Bennet. “They need to campaign on bold policy ideas rather than split-the-issue compromises,” he said.
But in a Democratic Party running on a more liberal and diversity-focused platform, Bennet’s campaign might come down to who he is.
“The senator’s biggest challenge could be as a middle-aged white guy running to lead a party embracing diversity and the role of women,” said Gonzales of Inside Elections.
Next stepsBennet plans to return to New Hampshire this weekend. After that trip, an official announcement will be placed on hold while his campaign continues to move forward. According to his interview in The Colorado Independent, anything after rests on one big ‘if’: If he is found to be cancer-free.
But hints of the kind of campaign Bennet could run, the kind of campaign he says America needs, can be found in an excerpt from his forthcoming book: “It is easy for the burden of present circumstance to convince us that we are in a dark hour. But we must also be honest enough to admit that as a nation we have faced challenges greater than this. ... Yes, everything now is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.”
Liz Weber is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.An earlier version of this story misspelled Nick Troiano’s last name.