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How Michael Bennet Could Win The 2020 Democratic Primary

Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet announced on Thursday morning that he is running for president on “CBS This Morning.” And while it won’t be easy for the Colorado lawmaker to win his party’s nomination, he’s been underestimated before, including in his first Senate bid in 2010 when he faced stiff challenges in both the primary and general elections. Bennet was also recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, but it didn’t discourage him from his presidential aspirations. Fortunately for Bennet, he just underwent a successful surgery and is not facing any further treatment as he wages his 2020 campaign. And although the field is crowded, there may yet be opportunities for him to break through, especially if he can grab attention like he did during the government shutdown earlier this year when he railed against Republicans and President Trump’s desire for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Bennet is now the seventh senator to enter the race, and he has been in that chamber since 2009, when he was appointed to fill the seat previously held by Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar, who had accepted a Cabinet position. Prior to his Senate appointment, Bennet had never run for office and was serving as superintendent of the Denver public school system, so his promotion came as a surprise to many observers. And in 2010, when Bennet ran to retain his seat, he first had to fend off a fellow Democrat, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who Bennet beat by 8 percentage points. Bennet then squeaked out a close general election victory, winning by less than 2 points against Republican Ken Buck (now a member of the U.S. House), who ran as a very conservative candidate, which likely helped Bennet survive in purple Colorado despite the 2010 Republican wave. In 2016, things were slightly easier for Bennet, as he won re-election by a more comfortable margin, 50 percent to 44 percent.

Bennet has generally kept a low profile as a senator. His most notable committee post is as a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, which has attracted some attention over its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. His biggest moment in the public eye was probably when his shutdown speech went viral in January, as he attacked Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for hypocrisy over funding the government — Cruz was arguing for a bill to fund the Coast Guard during the most recent government shutdown, but back in 2013, Cruz pushed for a government shutdown in an effort to defund Obamacare. Bennet said that the previous shutdown delayed flood-relief efforts in Colorado, and he condemned Cruz’s more recent interest in first responders as “crocodile tears.” Bennet also went after President Trump’s proposal to erect a “medieval wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border, proclaiming it was “ludicrous” that the government hadn’t been funded because of a campaign promise the president “couldn’t keep.” Clips of the speech were watched millions of times — C-SPAN said it was the most-watched congressional speech in the network’s history — and it got some attention in Iowa, where Bennet visited not long after. Perhaps Bennet can use this momentum to build support among party activists — at least a few have already said they would consider supporting him, according to FiveThirtyEight contributor Seth Masket’s April survey of early-state activists.

Which candidates early-state activists are considering

Share of respondents who said they were considering a candidate or had already committed to support a candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary

activists considering supporting
Candidate Dec. 2018 Feb. 2019 April
Harris 61%
54%
53%
Booker 45
49
47
Warren 24
40
35
Buttigieg
17
29
Klobuchar 34
37
26
Gillibrand 21
23
26
Sanders 29
29
24
Biden 39
34
21
McAuliffe 5
14
15
Castro
17
15
O’Rourke 34
14
15
Hickenlooper 21
23
12
Bennet
12
Inslee
12
Gabbard
9
9
Yang
9
Delaney 16
17
3

Source: Seth Masket, “Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016-2020”

But what else does Bennet have going for him? Well, he’s got a winning track record in a purple state, and he’s a moderate, both points he could use to sell himself as a good bet in the general election. Bennet was more conservative than 82 percent of Senate Democrats in the previous Congress, according to his DW-Nominate score, which measures politicians on a scale from -1 (most liberal) to 1 (most conservative) based on their congressional voting record. His career -0.208 score puts him relatively close to fellow presidential candidates like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (-.252) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (-0.304), which could make Bennet’s path a bit harder, and former Vice President Joe Biden’s entry into the race has sucked up a lot of the oxygen for candidates running near the middle. But should Biden struggle, it’s entirely possible that the field could open up for someone like Bennet. Bennet might also benefit from arguments within the Democratic Party about “electability” and identity, given that white men often seem to get preference in those discussions. And his recent bout with prostate cancer gives him with a personal story to share with voters that can also double as a talking point about health care, a top issue for Democrats.

It won’t be easy for Bennet, of course. Besides being relatively unknown — a Monmouth University poll in March found that nearly half (48 percent) of Democrats had never heard of him and only 20 percent were able to form any opinion of him — Bennet will also have to contend with not even being the only Coloradan in the race. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper is running too, which might limit Bennet’s ability to get endorsements or raise money in his home state, and that will make it much harder to get his campaign off the ground. It’ll also be imperative that Bennet qualifies for the upcoming Democratic primary debates, which he could do by getting at least 1 percent support in three polls (he already has one) or by getting donations from at least 65,000 unique donors,1 which might be hard to accomplish before the first debates at the end of June.

It’s entirely possible that Bennet’s bid is more of a play for the vice presidency, or simply an attempt to bring more attention to issues that are important to him, such as government dysfunction and money in politics. But as his first run for the Senate shows, Bennet shouldn’t be underestimated.

Footnotes

  1. Including at least 200 individual donors in each of at least 20 states.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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