Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Top 5 This Week

If Biden Drops Out: Meet the Top 7 Democratic Candidates

Michelle Obama leads potential Democratic replacements with 50% support against Trump's 39% in a hypothetical matchup.

Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Jill Biden, presidential candidates
Photo: GPA Photo Archive

As President Joe Biden’s campaign struggles to quell speculation about his potential exit from the 2024 election following a lackluster debate performance, Democratic insiders are quietly discussing potential replacements should Biden decide to bow out of the race. While Biden and his team continue to project confidence, the whispers of a potential shakeup have grown louder in recent days.

Ipsos presidential poll Michelle Obama

If the 81-year-old incumbent were to step aside, there are several prominent Democrats that could replace Biden as the Democratic nominee. From his own vice president to rising star governors to seasoned senators, the Democratic bench offers an array of options—each with their own strengths and vulnerabilities. Let’s take a closer look at the top contenders who could potentially step in to take on Donald Trump in November.

First Lady Michelle Obama
Photo: Tim Pierce

1. Former First Lady Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama, 60, despite consistently stating she has no interest in running for office, remains a towering figure in American politics and a subject of persistent speculation for higher office. Her tenure as First Lady from 2009 to 2017 was marked by significant policy initiatives and public advocacy. 

Since leaving the White House, Michelle’s popularity has only grown. Her memoir, “Becoming,” became a global bestseller, further cementing her status as a cultural icon. Her powerful speeches have resonated deeply with many Americans, so much so that Melania Trump decided to plagiarize her speech.

The recent Ipsos poll highlighting her strong performance in a hypothetical match-up against Trump underscores her electability. With 50% of registered voters saying they would vote for her compared to 39% for Trump, Michelle Obama significantly outperforms most other potential Democratic candidates in early polling.

As a Black woman, her candidacy would be historic and could energize key Democratic constituencies. Her universal name recognition would give her a significant advantage over most other candidates in what would be an unusual presidential race.

However, Obama has repeatedly and emphatically stated she has no desire to run for president. She has expressed concerns about the toll of politics on family life and has shown more interest in advocacy work outside of elected office. Despite the polling and wishful thinking from some Democrats, the likelihood of an Obama candidacy remains extremely low.

Pros

  • Polling Strength: In hypothetical match-ups against Trump, Michelle Obama significantly outperforms other potential Democratic candidates, with 50% of registered voters saying they would vote for her compared to 39% for Trump, demonstrating her strong electoral viability and broad appeal.
  • Inspirational Figure: Known for her powerful and moving speeches, Obama has a rare ability to inspire and connect with diverse audiences. 
  • Name Recognition: As a former First Lady and global public figure, Obama enjoys near-universal name recognition, giving her a significant advantage in building a national campaign quickly and efficiently with no need for extensive introductory efforts.

Cons

  • Lack of Political Experience: While highly influential, Obama has never held elected office or served in a formal executive governing role. This lack of direct political experience could be a liability.
  • Public Scrutiny: Entering the political arena as a candidate would subject Obama and her family to a level of intense public scrutiny and criticism that she has largely avoided since leaving the White House. 
  • Potential for Backlash: Despite her popularity, Obama’s candidacy could face criticism related to political dynasties, similar to what Hillary Clinton experienced. This might alienate voters seeking fresh leadership outside the established political elite.

Grade: A+ (if she was willing to run)

Vice President Kamala Harris
Photo: UK Government/Simon Dawson

2. Vice President Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris, a trailblazing figure in American politics, has navigated a complex path in her role as President Biden’s second-in-command. Initially tasked with thorny issues like immigration reform and voting rights, Harris faced skepticism from some Democratic circles about her political acumen. However, she has steadily carved out a more defined role, emerging as a vocal champion for reproductive rights and a key asset in energizing crucial Democratic voting blocs. 

Unfortunately, Harris would face the daunting challenge of overcoming deeply entrenched sexism and racism in American politics and society. As the first woman of color to potentially lead a major party ticket, she would likely encounter heightened scrutiny, unfair double standards, and thinly veiled attacks from Donald Trump and his campaign that other candidates wouldn’t face. This additional hurdle, while not insurmountable, would require Harris to navigate a political minefield with exceptional skill and resilience, potentially limiting her margin for error in an already challenging electoral landscape.

Pros

  • Historic Significance: With a chance to potentially be the first female Black president, she would likely garner substantial support from Black and women voters, critical demographics for the Democratic Party.
  • Incumbent Advantage: As the sitting VP, Harris could inherit the powerful incumbent advantage typically reserved for presidents seeking reelection, which would be bolstered if President Biden were to step down from both the presidential race and the presidency. As the current Vice President, she’s already well-versed in the day-to-day operations of the White House, national security briefings, and the intricacies of federal policymaking.
  • Social Justice Warrior: She has been a strong advocate for abortion rights and has taken a prominent role in defending these rights following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, becoming the first president or vice president to visit an abortion clinic.
  • Prosecutorial Experience: Harris’s extensive experience as a prosecutor, including her tenure as District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California, provides her with a unique advantage in countering potential Republican attacks on crime and public safety.

Cons

  • Low Approval Ratings: Despite her historic position as the first woman and person of color to serve as Vice President, Harris has consistently struggled with low approval ratings. Recent polls show her favorability hovering in the low 40s, barely outpacing President Biden.
  • Struggles with Retail Politics: Reports from her 2020 campaign and vice presidential tenure suggest Harris sometimes has difficulty connecting with voters in one-on-one settings. This perceived lack of warmth or relatability in retail politics scenarios could be a significant drawback.
  • Staff Turnover and Management Concerns: High-profile staff departures and reports of a difficult working environment has plagued Harris’s office. These issues have fueled narratives about her management style and ability to build a stable, effective team—crucial skills for any president.

Grade: B- 

California Governor Gavin Newsom
Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

3. California Governor Gavin Newsom

Gavin Newsom, 56, has emerged as one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent and polarizing figures. His political journey began in San Francisco, where he served as mayor from 2004 to 2011, gaining national attention for his progressive policies, including authorizing same-sex marriages in defiance of state law. After two terms as California’s lieutenant governor, Newsom ascended to the governorship in 2019, taking the helm of the world’s fifth-largest economy and the nation’s most populous state.

Gavin Newsom’s national profile has soared in recent years, largely because of his sharp criticism of Republican policies and his eagerness to engage in high-profile debates with conservative figures. Newsom went head-to-head with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in a Fox News debate moderated by Sean Hannity and bested DeSantis. Newsom later appeared solo on Sean Hannity’s show, venturing into the heart of conservative media territory. Despite facing tough questioning on a range of issues, from California’s homelessness crisis to its high taxes, Newsom held his ground and articulated Democratic positions with confidence and clarity. 

Newsom’s adept handling of these challenging interviews, coupled with his articulate defense of progressive policies, has impressed political observers across the spectrum. His performance in these high-stakes media encounters serves as a powerful testament to his potential as a national leader, capable of bridging partisan divides and reshaping the political narrative in favor of progressive ideals.

Pros

  • Proven Executive Experience: As a two-term governor of California—the world’s fifth-largest economy—Newsom has extensive executive experience managing complex issues on a massive scale.
  • Strong Debate and Media Skills: Newsom has consistently demonstrated his ability to perform well in high-pressure media situations. His debates with Ron DeSantis and appearances on conservative platforms like Fox News showcase his capacity to articulate Democratic positions effectively and counter Republican narratives in hostile environments.
  • Progressive Policy Record: Newsom has successfully implemented a range of progressive policies in California, including expanding healthcare access, advancing LGBTQ+ rights, and setting ambitious climate goals. This track record could energize the Democratic base and provide a clear vision for the party’s future.
  • Fundraising Powerhouse: With deep connections to California’s tech industry and entertainment elite, Newsom has proven to be an exceptional fundraiser. His ability to quickly build a substantial war chest would be crucial in a shortened campaign timeline.
  • Proven Business Acumen: Newsom’s business prowess stands in stark contrast to his potential political rival, Donald Trump. Before his foray into politics, Newsom showcased remarkable entrepreneurial acumen by founding and building the PlumpJack Group into a thriving enterprise employing over 700 people. Unlike Trump’s controversial business history marred by inherited wealth and multiple bankruptcies, Newsom built his empire from the ground up through genuine innovation and strategic leadership.

Cons

  • The California Stigma: Newsom’s association with California could be a significant liability in swing states, where many voters harbor an inexplicable but potent antipathy towards the Golden State, viewing it as a bastion of liberal excess and coastal elitism. This “anti-California” sentiment could make it challenging for Newsom to connect with crucial Midwest and Rust Belt voters.
  • French Laundry Scandal: Newsom’s reputation took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic when he attended a high-priced dinner at the French Laundry restaurant, appearing to flout his own lockdown guidelines and attracting allegations of hypocrisy.
  • State Issues: Under Newsom’s tenure, California has grappled with significant challenges such as housing affordability and an ongoing homelessness crises, which opponents could use to question his leadership effectiveness.
  • Perceived Elitism: Newsom’s wealthy background and connections to affluent donors and celebrities might alienate working-class voters, who could see him as out of touch with everyday struggles. However, this perceived gap may be negated by his opponent Donald Trump, a billionaire known for his lavish lifestyle and golden toilets.

Grade: A- 

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer
Photo: Michigan National Guard

4. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer

Gretchen Whitmer, 52, has rapidly ascended to national prominence through her resolute leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her pragmatic “Fix the Damn Roads” campaign message struck a chord with voters in her crucial swing state, showcasing her ability to connect with Midwestern sensibilities. 

Whitmer’s decisive actions during the pandemic, while controversial among some, earned her widespread recognition and respect from many Democrats nationwide. In 2022, she led Michigan Democrats to their first trifecta in 40 years, securing control of both legislative chambers and the governorship. 

This victory, coupled with her role in helping pass a state constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights, has solidified her status as a rising star within the Democratic Party. Whitmer’s blend of Midwestern appeal, executive experience, and proven electoral success in a battleground state has put her squarely on the national radar as a potential presidential contender.

Pros

  • Battleground State Appeal: Whitmer’s success in Michigan, a crucial swing state, demonstrates her ability to connect with Midwestern voters and win in competitive electoral environments.
  • Strong Executive Experience: As governor, Whitmer has navigated complex challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and led her party to full control of state government, showcasing her leadership skills.
  • Strong Campaigner: Successfully secured a Democratic trifecta in Michigan, proving her skill in orchestrating electoral victories.
  • Progressive Achievements: Whitmer has successfully implemented key Democratic priorities, including expanding Medicaid, increasing education funding, and protecting abortion rights.

Cons

  • Limited National Experience: Whitmer’s political career is centered in Michigan, which may leave her exposed to criticisms regarding her lack of experience in foreign policy and national security.
  • Moderate Image Concerns: Some progressive Democrats might view Whitmer as too centrist, potentially dampening enthusiasm among the party’s base.
  • Relative Newcomer Status: As a relatively fresh face on the national stage, Whitmer might struggle with name recognition and establishing a broad donor base compared to more established candidates.

Grade: A- 

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker
Photo: US Department of Labor

5. Illinois Governor JB Pritzker

JB Pritzker, 57, represents a unique blend of business acumen, progressive politics, and personal wealth in the Democratic Party. As a billionaire heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune, Pritzker brings substantial financial resources and business experience to his political career. However, unlike some wealthy politicians, he has leveraged his position to champion progressive policies.

Since taking office in 2019, Pritzker has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of former President Donald Trump, using his position to challenge Trump’s policies and rhetoric. This confrontational stance has endeared him to many in the Democratic base and elevated his national profile.

Pritzker’s tenure as governor has been marked by a series of progressive achievements. He has been a staunch defender of abortion rights, signing legislation to protect and expand access to reproductive healthcare in Illinois, even as neighboring states have imposed restrictions. His administration has also taken significant steps on gun control, including banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Pritzker’s combination of personal wealth, business background, and progressive credentials make him a formidable candidate. His ability to self-fund a campaign could be a significant advantage. 

Pros

  • Financial Muscle: Pritzker’s immense personal wealth provides him with a significant advantage in terms of campaign funding, allowing him to outspend Trump and quickly build a national operation without relying heavily on donors.
  • Progressive Credentials: His successful passage of strong abortion rights protections and gun control legislation in Illinois underscores his capability to advance progressive policies. 
  • Combative Style: Pritzker’s direct and scathing attacks on Trump have earned him recognition and applause from the Democratic base, and would be a great counter to Trump’s similarly combative style.
  • Experience: His tenure as governor of a large, diverse state has given Pritzker valuable executive experience in managing complex issues and implementing policy on a significant scale.

Cons

  • Elitist Image: Pritzker’s billionaire status could work against him, especially among voters skeptical of wealthy political figures. As with Gavin Newsom, this would likely be offset by Trump’s significant wealth. 
  • State Issues: Trump could use Chicago’s persistent crime issues and Illinois’ ongoing financial problems—including pension liabilities—to question Pritzker’s effectiveness as a leader and his ability to address national challenges.
  • Low National Profile: Despite his achievements in Illinois, Pritzker remains less well-known on the national stage compared to other potential Democratic candidates, which could hamper his ability to build a strong coalition of voters quickly.

Grade: C

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro
Photo: The Office of Governor Tom Wolf

6. Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro

Josh Shapiro, 51, has emerged as a rising star in the Democratic Party. Shapiro’s profile rose significantly during his tenure as Pennsylvania’s Attorney General from 2017 to 2023. In this role, he gained national attention for his involvement in high-profile cases, including leading a grand jury investigation into clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church. 

In 2022, Shapiro won the gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania by a commanding margin, outperforming expectations in a key swing state. His campaign focused on pragmatic solutions to everyday issues, emphasizing his ability to work across the aisle to achieve results. This approach has earned him a reputation as a moderate who can appeal to a broad spectrum of voters, from progressive Democrats to moderate Republicans.

As governor, Shapiro has been extremely effective. He’s focused on issues such as improving public education, addressing the opioid crisis, and promoting economic development across urban and rural areas of Pennsylvania. His ability to navigate complex political landscapes was evident in his successful negotiation of the state budget.

While Shapiro’s moderate stance has been key to his success in Pennsylvania, it also positions him as a potentially unifying figure on the national stage. His ability to win in a crucial swing state by a substantial margin shows his broad appeal, which could be valuable in a general election scenario against Trump.

Pros

  • Proven Swing State Appeal: Shapiro’s decisive victory in the 2022 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race—winning by nearly 15 percentage points in a crucial battleground state—demonstrates his ability to attract a broad coalition of voters and bodes well for his potential performance in key swing states. 
  • Strong Legal Background: Shapiro’s tenure as Pennsylvania’s Attorney General from 2017 to 2023 provides him with significant credibility on law and order issues. His leadership in high-profile cases, including a grand jury investigation into clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church, demonstrates his willingness to tackle complex and sensitive legal matters.
  • Fresh Face: At 51, Shapiro represents a younger generation of leadership within the Democratic Party. As the first Gen X governor of Pennsylvania, his relative youth could appeal to voters looking for generational change and fresh perspectives in Washington. 

Cons

  • Limited National Experience: While Shapiro has impressive state-level credentials, his lack of federal government experience could be a liability. Critics may question his readiness to handle complex national and international issues, particularly in areas like foreign policy and national security, where governors typically have limited exposure.
  • Short Gubernatorial Record: Having been in office for a short time, he lacks the long-term executive experience of other candidates.
  • Low Name Recognition: Despite being well known in Pennsylvania, Shapiro remains relatively unknown on the national stage. Building name recognition and a national profile would require significant time and resources, potentially putting him at a disadvantage against more established figures in a crowded primary field.

Grade: B 

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear
Photo: Spc. Georgia Napier

7. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear

Andy Beshear, 46, has emerged as a notable Democratic figure in an overwhelmingly Republican state. As the son of former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, he comes from a respected political lineage, but has carved out his own reputation through his governance.

During his tenure as Kentucky’s Attorney General from 2015 to 2019, Andy Beshear established himself as a formidable legal and political force, particularly through his high-profile confrontations with then-Republican Governor Matt Bevin. Beshear’s strategic use of lawsuits against Bevin’s administration showcased his willingness to challenge executive overreach and defend Kentucky institutions. 

He also took on high-profile cases against pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid crisis, establishing himself as a champion for the people of Kentucky who were hit especially hard by the opioid epidemic.

His narrow victory in the 2019 gubernatorial race against incumbent Republican Matt Bevin was a significant upset, demonstrating his ability to appeal to voters across party lines in a state that has trended increasingly conservative in recent years.

On policy, Beshear has achieved some progressive goals in a very conservative state, including expanding Medicaid access and restoring voting rights to former felons. He’s also focused on economic development, attracting major investments in Kentucky’s growing electric vehicle and battery production sectors.

Beshear’s ability to win re-election in 2023—improving his margin of victory in a state that former President Trump won by over 25 points in 2020—has elevated his national profile significantly. His success in connecting with rural and working-class voters while maintaining Democratic principles has made him an intriguing figure for those looking to bridge the Democratic Party’s growing urban-rural divide.

Candidate Pros

  • Bipartisan Appeal: Beshear’s 2023 reelection victory in deep-red Kentucky, improving his margin from 2019, was no small feat and demonstrates his unique ability to attract crossover voters and appeal to a broad electorate. 
  • Youthful Energy: At 46, Beshear represents a new generation of leadership within the Democratic Party. His age and dynamic approach could energize younger voters and would present a stark contrast to Donald Trump.
  • Crisis Management: Beshear’s adept handling of multiple crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, devastating tornadoes, and severe flooding, showcases his ability to lead effectively under pressure. 

Candidate Cons

  • Red State Challenges: While Beshear’s success in Kentucky is impressive, translating this appeal to a national Democratic electorate could prove difficult. Some positions taken to win in a conservative state might not align with priorities of the party’s more progressive wing.
  • Low National Profile: Despite his achievements in Kentucky, Beshear remains relatively unknown on the national stage. Building name recognition and a national support base would likely require his participation in a primary process, which isn’t possible this year. Beshear is a better candidate for 2028 or 2032.
  •  Limited Executive Experience: Although Beshear has achieved notable successes as governor, his tenure in executive office is still relatively short. 

Grade: B-

Other Candidates

Beyond the front runners mentioned above, several other Democratic figures have been floated as potential candidates should President Biden exit the race. These individuals, while perhaps less prominent on the national stage, bring unique strengths and experiences that could make them formidable contenders.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota could be an attractive option for Democrats looking to reconnect with working-class voters. Her experience in the Senate and strong performance in the 2020 New Hampshire primary show her potential as a national candidate. 

Maryland Governor Wes Moore
Maryland Governor Wes Moore, Photo: Maryland GovPics

Maryland Governor Wes Moore, a Rhodes Scholar and Army combat veteran elected in 2022, has quickly emerged as a rising star in the Democratic Party. His focus on tackling entrenched issues like child poverty and housing affordability, coupled with his efforts to redefine patriotism as an inclusive concept, has garnered national attention. But his relative lack of experience makes him a better candidate for 2028.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who gained national attention during his 2020 presidential run, remains a popular figure within the party. His articulate communication style and executive experience in the Biden administration could make him a strong contender. However, questions about his ability to connect with diverse constituencies, particularly Black voters, persist from his 2020 campaign.

These candidates exemplify the Democratic Party’s deep talent pool but also underscore the difficulty in rallying around a consensus candidate to unite its various factions. As the 2024 campaign progresses, the party faces a critical juncture: identifying a charismatic leader capable of inheriting President Biden’s mantle, energizing the progressive base, and assembling a formidable coalition to counter Donald Trump’s inexplicable populist appeal.