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The Democrats Have a Deeper Bench Than You Think

Whether or not Biden runs in 2024, his party has several potential contenders for national office.
December 16, 2022
The Democrats Have a Deeper Bench Than You Think
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

“There’s no one else.”

This is the argument used most often in support of President Joe Biden running for a second term. It’s not the most complimentary defense of the man who kicked former President Donald Trump to the curb only two years ago, but it’s the one his critics seem to have the hardest time refuting.

Despite his gaffes, old age, and inability to be a truly influential or transformational figure within his own party, Biden is viewed as a far better candidate than any of his potential successors—a dynamic memorably mocked in a Halloween sketch on Saturday Night Live.

But the results of the midterms show how flawed such thinking is. In a year that was projected to be a bloodbath for Democrats, liberals not only kept but improved their majority in the Senate, and they only lost the House by a few seats. On top of this, several candidates posted impressive margins against their GOP opponents, even in purple states that barely went to Biden in 2020.

If Democrats had suffered the expected drubbing, Biden might have found that renomination in 2024 had slipped out of his grasp. As things stand, though, the party’s overperformance in the midterms likely means the nomination is his if he wants it. He has said that it is his “intention” to run again, and that he will make a decision “early” in 2023.

But if Biden does not run again, for whatever reason, Democrats have a strong selection of contenders who could step up in 2024—and looking further ahead, to 2028 and a race that Biden certainly won’t be running in, Democrats don’t need to fear turning the page.

Before breaking down the best potential Biden successors, though, let’s make clear who’s at the bottom of the list. Vice President Kamala Harris has been held to an impossible standard that goes far beyond the level of scrutiny her predecessors faced; it is plainly necessary to take her race and gender into account when analyzing her remarkable unpopularity with Americans.

But having said that, it’s also important to note that Harris is a bad politician who doesn’t know how to pitch Democratic policy outside of California. There are reasons her 2020 campaign flamed out, and there’s no evidence to suggest she’d chart a better course in the future. And while her verbal gaffes, which have repeatedly gone viral, may not be much worse than the awkward verbal missteps of Trump or Biden, they do nothing to instill confidence in her as a possible presidential candidate.

Meanwhile, California Governor Gavin Newsom appears eager to launch a presidential bid, likely imagining himself as a sort of liberal Ron DeSantis. But much like Harris, Newsom has a brand of politics that likely won’t play well outside the Golden State. It’s difficult to imagine him winning enough of the swing states needed to reach 270 electoral votes.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is certainly a nice guy, but that doesn’t mean Americans will elect him president. While his 2020 presidential campaign had a respectable showing, his support comes almost entirely from college-educated white voters. That just isn’t enough for a Democrat to win the presidency, especially given his complete lack of appeal to voters of color.

And finally, while outgoing Rep. Tim Ryan from Ohio ran a near-perfect Senate campaign in a red state—a campaign that helped lift down-ballot candidates—he was unable to clinch victory. Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams have proven that to become the future of the party personified, it’s important to actually, ya know, show you can win.

Speaking of winners, let’s look at a few of the party’s potential future stars.

Gretchen Whitmer

A key advantage governors have in presidential primaries is their ability to operate outside of the Beltway and away from congressional politics. It’s easier for them to make issues local than it is for those who work in Washington, and it’s harder for their opponents to tie them to the party’s national agenda and its unpopular leaders.

The disadvantage is that governors usually lack the national profile needed to break out of the crowded primary field. Popular Democratic governors like Montana’s Steve Bullock have struggled after launching bids, while the name recognition of senators like Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren has helped them soar.

Whitmer was given terrible gifts in this regard: A kidnapping plot, foiled before it was enacted, put her name in national headlines for days. By then, Lansing had already been a focal point for the national spotlight for months owing to the governor’s approach to public health, the impetus for the unsuccessful plot. These tumultuous events gave Whitmer a level of nationwide name recognition that others in her office simply lack.

While Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s rejection of pandemic restrictions improved his standing with the GOP base, Whitmer raised her own profile through embracing such restrictions. Debate will continue for a long time over whether Democrats were too strict in their pandemic response, but Michiganders did not punish Whitmer when she was up for re-election this year. Instead, voters rewarded her with a 10-point victory over Republican Tudor Dixon. While DeSantis won re-election by a larger margin in Florida, Whitmer’s performance was still decisive and impressive.

DeSantis is an important point of reference for prognosticating about Whitmer’s fortunes: They are, in some respects, close to mirror images of one another. Right-wingers seem to hate her as much as the left hates him, and few things energize base voters more than a candidate despised by the opposing party.

While plenty of Democrats are loathed by conservatives, they typically hail from the “elite” coasts. Whitmer leads a Midwestern state, demonstrating strength in the region that consistently swings the hardest.

Whitmer is also well positioned to speak convincingly on the issues most beneficial to the electoral success of Democrats: abortion and political violence.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade will remain a grounding issue for Democrats heading into 2024. Whitmer has a deeply personal connection to this issue: She has publicly disclosed that she was a victim of sexual assault. As Republican state legislatures weigh the inclusion of rape and incest–based exceptions in new or prospective abortion bans, Whitmer’s story could be a powerful motivator for voters.

And again, there is the kidnapping plot. Whitmer’s personal experience makes vividly real the consequences of the GOP’s increasingly violent rhetoric.

On those two issues of reproductive rights and the radicalization of the GOP, both of which were instrumental in Democrats holding back Republican gains this year, Whitmer has proven a valuable messenger. She’d have an excellent foundation to build on for a presidential run.

Josh Shapiro

The Pennsylvania governor-elect is a relative newcomer to the national stage. He owes much of his recent boost in name recognition to running against Republican nominee Doug Mastriano, whose eccentricities and extremism understandably attracted an amount of media attention disproportionate to his low chances of winning. But Shapiro ran a solid campaign in spite of the low odds of failure, and he enjoys a great deal of popularity in the swing state of Pennsylvania. He won by an impressive 14 points.

Not to make too much of a race that any Democrat with a face and a voice would probably have won almost as decisively, but this was a bigger margin than Whitmer’s, or those of Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly, Maggie Hassan, and Catherine Cortez Masto, or that of Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, too. And, mind you, all of those Democrats had the advantage of incumbency.

Shapiro doesn’t have Whitmer’s notoriety. Liberal commentators have occasionally bemoaned the lack of a Democratic politician able to excite and move crowds the way Barack Obama did, but some heard grace notes that reminded them of the former president in Shapiro’s rally speeches.

While he has been described as a progressive, Shapiro spent his time as Pennsylvania’s attorney general going after crime, building trust among his constituents at a time when many voters appear to be losing faith that Democratic policy can protect them from theft and violence.

Although there are many points in Shapiro’s favor, he is a white man in a party that champions diversity. Democrats are currently being held above water by women and by black Americans. The optics of a white cisgender man aspiring to Democratic leadership are worth mentioning as a potential issue for Shapiro in the context of a hypothetical presidential (or vice-presidential) bid. The same is true of our next rising star.

John Fetterman

Fellow Pennsylvanian John Fetterman has a challenging path forward as he continues to recover from the stroke he had in May, a circumstance that many feared would cost him the seat that he appeared to have already bagged when his campaign against the politically hapless television star, Dr. Mehmet Oz, was still young. Fetterman’s rough performance in his debate with Oz and the late tightening of the polls—with Oz sliding ahead—led many observers to think Fetterman would lose. In the end, though, the progressive former small-town mayor won Pennsylvania by almost 5 points.

The senator-elect now has four years to more fully recover before the 2028 primary season begins to take shape. If he is healthy enough by that point, he could well be a formidable candidate. The source of his great potential is his ability to do exactly what moderate Democrats have been attempting to do since 2016: appeal to voters won over by Trump.

Political elites claim there is no appetite for leftism among white working-class Americans. However, even though he is a committed progressive, Fetterman still won handily. Thanks to his outstanding early ground game—his campaign slogan was “every county, every vote”—he even improved on Biden’s 2020 performance in rural counties.

Fetterman—a supporter of criminal justice reform, universal healthcare, and a $15 minimum wage—accomplished this while being largely absent from the campaign trail. That’s how strong his brand is. Carhartt hoodies, Dickies shirts, Nine Inch Nails, brilliant social media trolling, looking gruff even at an Easter Egg hunt—Fetterman’s associations in the public imagination are unusually vivid and specific, and they endear him to voters whom refined technocratic Dems usually leave cold.

Raphael Warnock

Georgia’s first black senator makes it onto this list thanks to his potential to revive a class of politician not seen since former President Bill Clinton: the Southern Democrat.

Democrats dominated the South for decades, and for horrible reasons. The party lost its base of conservative white support when it began to advocate for racial justice. The South has been a deep-red stronghold in presidential elections since then, with the exception of Bill Clinton’s wins.

Warnock has shown that, with the suburbs trending blue, there’s a path for Democrats to gain some ground in the South.

Senatorial candidate Cheri Beasley’s impressive performance in North Carolina this year (despite receiving hardly any support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) is further evidence that black Democrats are serious contenders in the South. But so far, Warnock has been the only one to pull off a major win.

The not-so-secret ingredient to Warnock’s success is his profile as a pastor, which connects him to one of the noblest stories we tell about American history. Black voters continue to identify more frequently as Christians than their white counterparts do, and Warnock’s religiously informed political vision has a special resonance for many of them.

Warnock can now work on establishing himself as a national figure who personifies a very American way of bringing together faith and politics. Could he eventually succeed in breaking the GOP’s hold on traditionally devout Christians?  For now, motivating fellow black Christian voters has been enough to see him through two contentious elections, which both helped to raise his national profile.

Even if Warnock might not be first in line for the Democratic presidential nomination, at the very least, he is now very high on the list of potential vice-presidential candidates, especially if Whitmer secures the nomination. If the Democrats can hold on to the Midwest while making gains in the South, the future for American liberals will look very bright.

Honorable Mentions

The quartet above are the Democrats who have established themselves as potential superstars within the party—but there are plenty of others who have the opportunity to raise their national profile in the months and years ahead.

Wes Moore, the 44-year-old governor-elect of Maryland, received almost double the votes of his Republican opponent, securing the highest margin of victory for a gubernatorial candidate in any state since 1986. The first black governor of the state, a veteran with an impressive biography, could go very far, provided he can secure wider name recognition.

Mark Kelly, the newly re-elected U.S. senator from Arizona, is an incredibly likable politician who has been able to narrowly hold what is considered by many to be the quintessential swing state. It’s not hard to imagine the former astronaut putting together a national campaign.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin is similarly likable, and she has had some impressive victories in a state that Trump won in 2016 and that Biden retook by less than a point in 2020. Baldwin, the first openly LGBT senator, was a major force behind securing the Respect for Marriage Act’s passage. There was speculation about her possibly throwing her hat in the ring during the 2020 presidential cycle—except for the fact that, as Eric Levitz joked, she “appears to lack whatever personality disorder causes a human being to want to run for president.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, the country’s first openly gay male governor, saw his state become an unquestionably blue stronghold in 2022 despite his having governed moderately, as evinced by his COVID-19 pandemic response policy. His political playbook is aggressively normal; Tim Miller described it this way last March: “Care about what voters care about. Talk to Republican and swing voters with authenticity. And give people results rather than pandering to ideologues. Revolutionary!” That kind of centrism, though, would likely do Polis few favors in the Democratic presidential primaries. Additionally, he would have to overcome being an insanely wealthy individual in a party that has increasingly adopted an “eat the rich” mentality.

Sebastian Hughes

Sebastian Hughes is an associate producer at The Bulwark.