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Democrats 2020: Governors try to crack the senator scramble

NEW ORLEANS —The opening months of the Democratic presidential primary have been dominated by senators who have staked their campaigns on personal narratives and sweeping liberal policies.

Now come the governors.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was the first state executive to enter the presidential field, launching his campaign Friday by declaring climate change the nation's most pressing task and his campaign's defining issue. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to join soon. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe are considering bids, as well.

Most of them will use some variations of an argument that governors from Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have used to reach the Oval Office: We get things done, unlike those Capitol Hill peacocks. "If America wants to see a Washington that actually works, look west to Washington state," Inslee, a former congressman, said Friday in his Seattle announcement.

Yet governors face notable headwinds in the era of President Donald Trump.

Many Democratic voters are transfixed by the daily saga in the nation's capital, and that allows presidential candidates including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to remain front and center in the battle for attention.

"I don't want to diminish being a governor, but it's just not as important as it used to be," said Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico governor.

Richardson ran for president in 2008 but never gained traction, as a freshman senator from Illinois named Barack Obama won the nomination and the general election. Eight years later, Republicans went even further afield from Obama's thin resume when they nominated Trump, who'd never held elected office at any level.

Adding to the governors' challenges, they are middle-aged to older white men at a time when the Democratic Party base is dominated by women nonwhites and young voters — an electorate that may not be clamoring for the offerings of conventional politicians. Inslee and Hickenlooper are in their late 60s. McAuliffe is 62. Bullock is the youngest, at 52.

For those Democrats looking for a white man, they've already got Sanders, who is anything but conventional, as a 77-year-old democratic socialist. Potentially joining the fold soon: former Vice President Joe Biden, a 76-year-old with decades in the limelight, and Texas Democrat Beto O'Rourke, a 46-year-old who built a national following in his unsuccessful bid to topple Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last year. Both men would bring an immediate fundraising jolt that governors might not match.

"Things are so audience-driven. Who's on fire? Who gets the crowd?" said Boyd Brown, a South Carolina Democrat who is part of the "Draft Beto" operation. "A no-name governor from a small state isn't drawing that enthusiasm. They've got to do something to catch fire."

Added Richardson: "Voters want an inspirational candidate."

For Inslee, action on climate change is his attempt to do just that. "I'm the only candidate who is saying very clearly this has to be the No. 1 priority for the United States," he said in an interview after his announcement. "This is a compelling passion of my life, in public life. I'm the only person who's been working on this literally for decades."

Inslee argues that his focus, besides policy necessity, is good politics given the increasing attention climate change is getting from the left. His theory: Once he gets noticed for his signature issue, Democratic voters will see his liberal record in Washington.

Colorado's Hickenlooper has a different approach, basing his nascent campaign around the argument that he has a record of uniting divided constituencies to get things done in a two-party battleground state. He regularly touts new limits on energy emissions, gun control laws and Medicaid expansion that he implemented during his two terms.

At an Iowa house party in January, Hickenlooper described himself as "having strong progressive values, but also being willing to compromise to make progress." He argued against a primary that revolves around who loathes Trump more.

"If everyone yells at Trump, he wins," Hickenlooper said when asked about the president. "You have to laugh at him and joke along and say, 'Hey, this is what I did.'"

Bullock and McAuliffe would be arguing on a slate of accomplishments in statehouses controlled by Republicans. Bullock successfully expanded Medicaid in Montana. McAuliffe was unable to persuade GOP lawmakers to do that but took executive action on liberal priorities such as restoring most felons' voting rights.

For their parts, senators are still sensitive to assessments of their management abilities — and the Senate's reputation for doing more talking than anything else.

Harris notes that her previous posts as California attorney general and local prosecutor made her an executive branch official responsible for guiding an office or an agency. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who would become the second black man to hold the presidency, talks extensively of his tenure as the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Even Sanders, who has been on Capitol Hill for almost 30 years, brings up actions he took as mayor of Burlington, Vermont.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar's aides this week touted her rankings in Vanderbilt University's assessment of the most effective senators based on 15 metrics of how successful senators were in advancing impactful legislation. Klobuchar was the highest-ranking Democratic senator and fifth overall.

For all the challenges, Democratic observers remain wary about writing off governors who may start from seemingly nowhere.

"The divide will not be between people with executive and legislative experience but between people who have fine ideas versus those who want to be transformational presidents," said Adam Green, founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backs Warren. Green put Warren and Sanders in the transformational category but said Inslee's approach on climate change could qualify.

Another former governor, Michigan's Jennifer Granholm, said governors still can marry old-school retail campaigning — like a little-known former Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, used in Iowa in 1975 — with the social media savvy that senators like Harris and Warren have used to build massive followings. Then governors must capitalize in the initial summer debates, Granholm added, saying it's all possible if they shed the conventions of already being an executive.

"Anybody who says they know what's going to work and who's going to figure it out is lying," said Brown, the O'Rourke supporter from South Carolina. "Donald Trump is president, isn't he?"

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