Outgoing Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have emerged as early favorites in the opening phase of the 2020 campaign. All the attention on the presidential prospects of this white male trio might seem to miss the message of the midterm elections, in which a record number of women were elected to public office across the country.
The dynamic puts Democrats in an awkward position weeks after the midterm victories, with Rep. Nancy Pelosi poised to regain the speaker’s gavel as the highest-ranking woman in Washington. And it raises an uncomfortable question for the party: Two years after Hillary Clinton fell short of the presidency, are Democrats ready to nominate another woman to take on President Donald Trump?
“Women voters and women activists are feeling much more empowered than they ever have,” Cecile Richards, who led Planned Parenthood for more than a decade, said in an interview. “I don’t know whether it will be in the first place or the second place. But I cannot imagine a woman not being on this ticket because women are going to demand it.”
Of course, there are plenty of women in the 2020 mix. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are actively considering presidential runs and could be formidable candidates. In an interview this week, Harris said, “I would hope” the eventual Democratic presidential field would be representative of the U.S. population when it comes to both gender and race. She declined to prognosticate further about the primary because “I don’t know what the field will be.”
But the early focus on the men demonstrates how difficult it can be for women to break into political power at the highest levels. Amanda Litman, co-founder of the advocacy group Run for Something and Clinton’s former email director, said in an interview that early surveys showing Biden, Sanders and O’Rourke topping the Democratic field are “measuring purely name recognition, and these things that one has to do to gain name recognition inherently favor men.”
Clinton herself blamed her defeat in part on sexist forces — and some Democrats expressed concern that persistent hurdles remain in place. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from the early-voting state of New Hampshire, said, “Women always have to reckon with those forces.”
But Shaheen, who told The Associated Press that she’s “talked to a number of my colleagues” considering White House bids, made clear that she sees “an open field, and an opportunity for whoever is interested in running to make the case.”
John Neffinger, a Democratic strategist who helped Clinton prepare for her debates with Trump, said part of the “higher hurdle for women” seeking the presidency involves the reality that American culture, including the media, treats women candidates differently.
“Democrats don’t just want a candidate they like — they want one that general election voters will be comfortable putting in charge,” he said. “This is all changing for the better, and every candidate gets judged on their own merits, but research suggests it’s still harder for a woman to make that case.”
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate in 2016, said that despite “the very significant double standard applied to her versus the president,” he sees the “ugliness” visible in that race as ultimately “energizing to voters, volunteers, and candidates” ahead of 2020.
“So, will it be a factor? Yeah, it’ll be a factor,” Kaine said in an interview. “But I think there may be even more resolve . to finally break the glass ceiling.”
The three men attracting 2020 buzz among Democrats have high profiles for a reason: Biden ran for president twice himself before becoming vice president, while Sanders nearly bested Clinton in the primary and O’Rourke became a national phenomenon in his Senate race. Notably, for all O’Rourke’s recent cachet among the party faithful, the 46-year-old remains largely unknown to most Americans. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found that 55 percent of voters haven’t heard enough to reach a verdict on him, with 24 percent rating him favorably and 20 percent unfavorably. Harris polled similarly, with 57 percent saying they haven’t heard enough about her.
As the early stages of the campaign get underway, some key players said electability — not demographics — will be the most important factor.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has ruled out his own presidential run, put it bluntly when asked about Biden, O’Rourke, and Sanders leading the presidential conversation: “What’s wrong with white men?” White men will “probably be running things for quite a bit of time,” Brown added. “Look, it’s not the skin color, it’s who’s the right person with the right set of qualities to lead the nation.”
Gary Hirshberg, a major Democratic donor from New Hampshire, said he has “no intention of getting hung up on whether the best candidate is female, male, of color or Caucasian . and I pray that my fellow Dems avoid that trap as well.”
Niki Neems, a 51-year-old Iowa Democratic activist who caucused for Sanders over Clinton in 2016, sided with his more anti-establishment style while friends opted to elevate a woman. Looking to 2020, she’s more focused on winning than on making a statement.
“I’m for the most qualified person, not just a woman for a woman’s sake,” Neems said. “It does cause me some hesitation to think of two white men on the ticket considering the way the world is changing.”
Democratic operative Stefanie Brown James, whose Collective PAC works to support black candidates, wasn’t surprised at the chatter surrounding the “obvious choices” of Biden, Sanders and O’Rourke.
“I don’t think the times call for obvious choices,” James said. “I think it calls for a new way of doing things.”
Still, she said black female voters are “very pragmatic, so I really believe we feel as though the best person for the job should win,” whether that’s a white male candidate or a woman.
One of the Democrats most openly concerned about the early focus on male candidates, in fact, happens to be one of the female contenders.
Gillibrand told CNN this week that “yes,” she is worried by the prominence of three white men in the party’s early 2020 forecasts: “I aspire for our country to recognize the beauty of our diversity in some point in the future, and I hope someday we have a woman president.”