The 2020 Democratic primary field was stuffed with long-shot candidates convinced that a presidential campaign can only improve a politician’s reputation. Even if you don’t become president, a presidential campaign can help score a cable TV contract, a cabinet post, or even the vice presidency. So it’s all upside and no downside, right?
Plenty of presidential candidates exit the race quite worse for the wear. Failing upward requires more than just showing up; it requires political savvy.
Ten Democratic candidates both announced and terminated their presidential bids in 2019. Who lost it best? From worst to first:
10. Beto O’Rourke
After the 2018 midterm elections, Beto O’Rourke became the most popular loser of a Senate race since Abraham Lincoln in 1858. Some warned him not to believe his own hype, but he barreled into the presidential race, very much on his own terms.
The quirks that seemed endearing when he was running for the Senate suddenly looked sophomoric for a potential commander-in-chief: Blogging about road trips. Jumping on tables. Livestreaming dental work.
His pre-announcement declaration to Vanity Fair—“Man, I’m just born to be in it”—was spectacularly ill-timed. As Democrats swelled with excitement over their historically diverse field, O’Rourke was no longer considered a woke hero, but just another entitled white male. He would soon be boxed out by Pete Buttigieg, who became the field’s youngest, freshest face.
O’Rourke ended his doomed run as one of 2019’s biggest political car crashes, grasping for provocative positions that resembled a conservative caricature of a Democrat. He pledged to revoke the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage, raising First Amendment concerns. “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15,” said O’Rourke, making it easy for the National Rifle Association to claim Democrats want to confiscate the weapons of gun owners.
Any chance O’Rourke could again run competitively in Texas, an increasingly purple but still culturally conservative state, seems to be gone. By running for president, O’Rourke incinerated his future in electoral politics.
9. Bill de Blasio
Bill de Blasio’s four-month fizzle of a presidential campaign was the final humiliation in a years-long quest to anoint himself as a national leader of the progressive movement. His hometown constituents have not welcomed him back with open arms. According to polling by the Sienna Research Institute, de Blasio’s favorable rating among city voters dropped 11 points over the course of his presidential run, landing at an abysmal 33 percent in September. Since he dropped out, that number has ticked up only two points.
To add insult to injury, New York City’s Department of Investigation is looking into the taxpayer cost of de Blasio’s use of city police officers for security during his time on the presidential campaign trail, which may have totaled over $1 million. Those four months would have been better spent filling potholes.
8. Tim Ryan
If Rep. Tulsi Gabbard had dropped out by now, she would place very low on this list. Her bizarre campaign so sullied her standing back in Hawaii’s second congressional district that she attracted a strong primary challenger, prompting her to declare that she wouldn’t even try to run for re-election.
At least Rep. Tim Ryan hasn’t already lost his seat representing Ohio’s 13th. But the odds have increased that he could. Unlike in recent elections, he now has a credible Republican challenger: former state legislator Christina Hagan. After a forgettable, slightly odd presidential campaign (that “yoga vote” never showed up), Ryan has nearly depleted his campaign bank account. As of the end of the third quarter, he had only $41,050 on hand.
He has time to replenish his funds, and his blue-collar district still has a strong Democratic lean (Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 7 points in it, though Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by 27). But all Ryan’s presidential bid did was make him easier to beat.
7. Seth Moulton
Rep. Seth Moulton’s campaign was so pathetic he never got a turn on the debate stage before dropping out in the summer. But perhaps that was also his saving grace. Not enough people knew he was running for him to suffer serious embarrassment. Still, he squandered goodwill by opposing Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House after the 2018 midterms, and he didn’t regain it by running an impotent presidential campaign.
6. Kirsten Gillibrand
As soon as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand entered the race, she stepped onto the set with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who proceeded to inform her audience of Gillibrand’s ideological “transformation” from a rural upstate House member who leaned conservative on guns and immigration to a vocally feminist progressive. Maddow lectured the candidate that she would “have to give explanations … about why you changed your mind.” Maddow injected the idea that Gillibrand was an opportunist into the race, and it stuck.
Plus, Gillibrand could never shake complaints from Al Franken supporters that she pressured him into resigning before he could defend himself from groping allegations. The voters who didn’t sympathize with Franken didn’t rush to elevate Gillibrand either.
With a bruised national profile and a blue state address, she is unlikely to appear on anyone’s VP shortlist, and she doesn’t have an obvious path to a cabinet post.
5. Steve Bullock
Gov. Steve Bullock failed to exploit his unique status as the only red-state governor of the Democratic primary field. Still, it was a quiet failure that did not ruin his stature back home.
The Montana governor is term-limited and cannot run for re-election. And he has steadfastly refused to entertain jumping into the 2020 Senate race against incumbent Republican Steve Daines. But Democratic Party leaders, recognizing that he remains the most popular Democrat in Montana, are still pursuing him and hoping he will reconsider. And if the Democratic presidential nominee is not a white male, no one should be surprised if Bullock gets vetted for the vice-presidential slot on the ticket.
4. Eric Swalwell
The 39-year-old congressman concluded, after just three months on the presidential campaign trail, that he would not be 2020’s millennial candidate. In Swalwell’s lone debate, his demand that Joe Biden “pass the torch” was flicked away by the frontrunner. So he astutely decided to go back home and run to keep his congressional seat.
That freed up Swalwell, as a member of the House’s Intelligence and Judiciary committees, to immerse himself in the impeachment inquiry, and maintain a steady stream of related TV appearances. He has repeatedly driven Trump to rage on Twitter by regularly appearing on Fox News and articulating the case for impeachment.
Swalwell can’t take credit for Trump’s impeachment, but his brief presidential run introduced him to cable-TV viewers, allowing him to play a prominent role as one of the nightly drama’s talking heads.
3. John Hickenlooper
The undisciplined former Colorado governor had one of the more hapless presidential bids of the year. He mused at a CNN town hall, “How come we’re not asking more often the women, ‘Would you be willing to put a man on the ticket?’” and came across as dismissive (though he insisted he meant only that we shouldn’t assume a man would be the presidential nominee). He also shared an uncomfortable anecdote about the time he took his mother to see the pornographic movie “Deep Throat.”
After repeated denials that he would run for the Senate in 2020, Hickenlooper swallowed his pride and switched races in August. Now he’s the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic primary in Colorado, and in an October poll, he leads Republican incumbent Cory Gardner by 11 points.
2. Jay Inslee
If there’s one presidential dropout whose campaign was all upside, it’s Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who ran as a climate-change prophet. Inslee turned himself into a respected expert who can bestow green credibility on anyone he endorses. At the same time, his support at home is rock solid, and he’s expected to coast into a third gubernatorial term next year. And if a Democratic is in the White House in 2021, don’t be surprised if Inslee is tapped to run the EPA or the Energy Department.
1. Kamala Harris
Harris’s 2019 was rough. She undercut her persona as a steely interrogator with a series of inconsistent debate performances and wobbly stances on issues. Yet at the same time, Kamala Harris became a national figure in 2019, worthy of a killer “Saturday Night Live” impression by Maya Rudolph. By bowing out of the presidential race before the voting started, Harris avoided the painful spectacle of a potentially humiliating loss in Iowa, and she limited the number of enemies she made in the primary field.
As one of the few women of color who have won statewide elections, she will likely be on the short list of running mates for the eventual presidential nominee, especially if the nominee is a white man. She could also be a candidate for attorney general in a Democratic administration. And of course, at a relatively young 55 with few electoral threats to worry about at home in California, she can choose to remain where she is in the Senate, accumulate seniority and become a legislative maestro.
At the beginning of the year, Kamala Harris was the winner of the rollout primary. She ends the year as the winner of the presidential dropout primary.