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Coming soon to the Senate: A 2020 Democratic brawl

In 2016, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to herd his own bunch of ambitious senators running for president. Now he’s predicting lots of missed votes for the minority leader’s senators ahead of 2020. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

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At least a half-dozen senators are likely to run, a dynamic that Mitch McConnell jokingly said will be ‘fun to watch.’

The biggest 2020 campaign stage isn’t Iowa or New Hampshire. It’s the United States Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer just endured a brutal midterm election, but now he’s in for an equally challenging task: managing the half-dozen or more presidential hopefuls in his caucus jockeying for position. That group of liberal White House aspirants is on track to be the caucus’ most closely watched, and potentially influential, bloc.

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From household names like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to lesser-known progressives such as Jeff Merkley, Democratic senators eyeing the White House will spend the next two years doing everything they can to market themselves as the party’s best hope for salvation from Donald Trump.

Prominent liberals this year have mostly refrained from theatrics on the Senate floor against legislative compromises or Trump nominees — grandstanding that might have won kudos from the base but put red-state Democrats on the spot. But with the election over, some senators already worry that the chamber will get bogged down as it becomes a proving ground for the 2020 Democratic primary.

“It has the potential to do that. There could be 13 or 14 senators running,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), an estimate on the high end but not outside the realm of possibility. “We’ve got a lot of work to do and that” — the jockeying among senators trying to score points — “distracts” from it, he said.

Senators and aides in both parties expect the posturing to accelerate rapidly as the 2020 race shapes up. The Democratic field could swell to nine or more senators, depending on how the next few months go. Warren, Sanders, Kamala Harris, Merkley, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker are all seriously weighing runs. Sherrod Brown and Chris Murphy could receive some buzz, though both have thus far shied away from it. And the significance of Amy Klobuchar’s frequent visits to Iowa isn’t lost on anyone.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), addressing reporters on Wednesday after his candidates toppled multiple red-state Democratic incumbents, indicated his own keen interest in the fireworks across the aisle, calling it “fun to watch” and predicting lots of missed votes for Schumer’s senators. In 2016, McConnell had to herd his own bunch of ambitious senators running for president.

But Murphy, a young senator from Connecticut, predicted that no matter how the presidential maneuvering shakes out, Democrats wouldn’t face the internal tension that the Senate GOP presidential hopefuls sparked in the run-up to the 2016 election.

“We don’t know yet who’s going to run for president in the caucus, but we don’t have any Ted Cruzes in our caucus,” Murphy said in an interview. “We don’t have people in our caucus who are going to intentionally do damage to their colleagues in order to promote themselves or their presidential campaigns.”

Schumer made the same case on Wednesday, insisting that his “caucus has shown tremendous unity” that he expects to continue.

The many governors, mayors and House members eyeing the White House will have a hard time beating the Senate floor as a platform. Already several Democratic senators have taken the stage to remind the public of their ambitions: Harris voted against a compromise immigration bill in February, blindsiding liberal colleagues who expected her to join them in the “yes” camp. Shortly after that, Warren alienated moderate colleagues by attacking their support of bank deregulation.

The liberals’ first chance to make a splash without worrying about red-state Democrats is coming soon. On Dec. 7, government funding expires, and Trump is picking a big fight over at least $ 5 billion in border wall funding. The battle offers the first post-midterm opportunity to take on Trump directly, and Democrats are already bracing for brutal conflict on the Senate floor and behind closed doors in their caucus meetings.

2020 presidential candidates

One aide working for a potential presidential candidate wondered, however, whether any Democratic senator would be prepared to undercut Schumer’s position in year-end spending talks: “Everyone’s going to run against D.C.,” the aide said. “But is anyone going to run against [Democratic] leadership?”

The potential for intraparty animosity is real. Most Democrats, save for Harris and two New Mexico senators, earlier this year supported $ 25 billion in border wall money in exchange for protecting some young immigrants. With Tester and other at-risk Democrats’ races now over, White House aspirants might be in less of a mood to compromise and more inclined to push their colleagues to the left.

“You’re going to have a real opening salvo on this question, at least as far as the presidentials are going to play it, in December,” said a senior Democratic aide. This staffer did not, for now, expect high-profile liberals to cause a government shutdown, predicting they would not deploy “the full levels of their power” — in other words, block Schumer from the 60 votes he’ll need to avoid a partial shutdown — “but make damn clear what their position is.”

The Democratic senators eyeing White House bids have some chits to cash in with red-state Democrats they campaigned for. Unfortunately for them, though, at least three of those incumbents lost.

Harris sent more than $ 9 million to Democratic candidates and committees this cycle, while Warren had raised and donated $ 8 million as of late October, according to their offices. Booker bolstered his own $ 7 million-plus in fundraising for the party’s organizations with appearances on behalf of 10 out of 12 Democratic Senate candidates in closely contested races.

Warren held one-on-one meetings with 49 Democratic candidates for House, Senate, governor or state-level offices in early presidential states as of early October, according to tallies provided to Politico.

Elizabeth Warren celebrates

Gillibrand focused on female candidates, who she supported through a PAC dubbed Off the Sidelines, backing a list of nearly 100 hopefuls, including some centrists. Merkley has raised and contributed close to $ 1 million to the party’s candidates and committees, according to his office. And Murphy transferred and raised $ 500,000 for the Democratic campaign committee.

After several moderate Democrats went down Tuesday, some of the remaining ones are worries about the dynamics within the conference heading toward 2020.

“I’m worried about what the Senate looks like right now,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said in a recent interview, referring to the plethora of likely presidential candidates.

One thing that has changed, most Democrats privately admit, is moderates’ waning leverage to force the rest of their party to sidestep a potential government shutdown. When an impasse over immigration forced a brief partial closure in January, Democratic leaders abandoned their position under pressure from centrists to back down.

As prominent a stage as the Senate is for White House hopefuls, it by no means guarantees success. For Barack Obama, it worked out great. For the crop of Republicans who ran in 2016 — including Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul — not so much.

The three of them generated made-for-TV moments in the run-up to their bids. Paul forced an expiration of the PATRIOT Act, Rubio tried to sink the nuclear deal with Iran, and Cruz repeatedly went after McConnell, even calling him a liar. It was a management nightmare for McConnell.

But after maneuvering for years to generate buzz from inside the Senate, all three were trampled by Trump in the 2016 primaries.

Republicans wouldn’t be surprised to see the same thing happen to the Senate Democratic presidential caucus.

“They have lots of candidates,” Paul said. “It’s going to be very similar.”

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