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Bennet faces steep hurdles in long-shot campaign


Michael Bennet

Michael Bennet acknowledges the steep odds of qualifying for the first Democratic debates over the next month, but has vowed to stay in the race until the Iowa and New Hampshire contests next year. | M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico

2020 elections

The Colorado senator is struggling to make the stage of the first debate.

Michael Bennet has every reason not to run for president.

The low-key Colorado Democratic senator has a relatively centrist record that may be out of step with some primary voters, a recent cancer diagnosis and no real national profile. He’s not a cable news staple and shies away from the press in the Capitol.

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And Bennet’s already facing crunch time. He’s the Democratic senatormostin danger of missing the first debate in June, which would mark a major setback to Bennet’s already narrow path toward breaking out in a field of 22 other prominent White House hopefuls.

In a 30-minute interview with POLITICO ahead of a swing to New Hampshire, Bennet acknowledged the steep odds of getting 65,000 donors and cracking 1 percent in the polls one more time over the next month in order to qualify for the debate stage. He wouldn’t disclose how close he is to hitting the donor threshold and declined to guarantee he could make it happen.

“It’s not trivial,” Bennet, who jumped into the race only three weeks ago, said of the challenges he faces. “A lot of people in America don’t know me and that’s something I have to overcome … I may not be able to overcome that between now and the first debate.”

And if he doesn’t make it?

“I don’t think that’s fatal but we’re going to keep going,” Bennet said. He vowed to stay in until the Iowa and New Hampshire contests next year.

Those closest to Bennet wondered whether he would even go through with a presidential run after his cancer diagnosis, which he disclosed April 3. Bennet had initially planned to announce that month. The delay made an already difficult campaign that much tougher.

But for the second-term senator, the diagnosis of prostate cancer was a “clarifying” moment. Now cancer-free, Bennet conceded that the diagnosis was the “best excuse” to back out, but instead he’s using it to fuel his message. Like many Democrats, he decries Republican rule. But he also defends his private insurance, tries to gird against further exercises of partisan warfare and bluntly criticizes his own party.

Now, Bennet says the race is “more open today” than it’s been in a year. But his colleagues say the former Denver superintendent of schools with the baritone voice doesn’t view his own chances without skepticism.

But there are some centrist Democrats who are eager for someone to carry a message of realism and pragmatism. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who has hinted he will endorse a candidate soon, said he’s been “harassing” Bennet for three years to run.

“He is realistic about the big field,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a close friend who worked on health care legislation with Bennet. “The way he looks at it: … with a field so big it’s not like anybody is a prohibitive favorite.”

He’s also facing plenty of competition even among pragmatists. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Senate colleague Amy Klobuchar and former Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading the polls and the chase for endorsements, all are of similar ideology.

“I don’t think he is the right candidate for our country at this moment but I think he has a lot to offer the Senate and this country,” said Sen. Chris Coons. (D-Del.), who went to law school with Bennet and praised him but supports Biden.

In past presidential cycles, Bennet’s political bio would be formidable: He’s fended off a liberal primary challenge and was twice elected in a swing state. He has donor connections from chairing the Democratic Senate campaign arm. But what’s set him apart thus far is his emotional approach to politics, sometimes translating into sheer exasperation.

In a field filled with liberals and bold ideas like “Medicare for All,” Bennet has emerged as a teller of unpopular truths. And he signaled his entry into the race this winter by angrily lashing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on the Senate floor, part of a still-simmering personal feud with one of liberals’ archenemies.

Bennet spoke to former President Barack Obama before launching his run, but his message isn’t exactly “hope or change” or “yes we can.” Instead, he says in so many words, that Republicans are thrashing Democrats.

Bennet’s had multiple “disagreements” with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the architect of the party’s strategy to filibuster Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination. And he grows most animated when discussing his party’s “terrible failure” on Supreme Court justices and judicial nominations, which have dominated the Senate during the presidency of Donald Trump.

“I’m sick and tired of losing to those guys,” Bennet said. “We lost to [Mitch] McConnell on judges … And then what we say is that, ‘Well, our solution to that is we’re going to pack the court,’ with no predicate being set with the American people for that as our agenda. What we create is the opportunity for Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell to set themselves up as the saviors of our institutions. And we shouldn’t do that.”

Bennet has been notably tangling with Demand Justice, a progressive group advocating for hard-line opposition to Trump’s nominees.

“When it comes to fighting Trump’s judges, Michael Bennet is the George McClellan of the Senate Democrats,” said Brian Fallon, who heads Demand Justice, a reference to a flailing civil war general. “The only difference is, McClellan actually did go on to win the Democratic Party nomination for president.”

Yet as liberals seek to make structural changes to the American political system, Bennet finds himself defending it. He opposes getting rid of the legislative filibuster, has recanted his support for gutting the filibuster on nominees and argued against trying to block Gorsuch.

Bennet says that by filibustering Gorsuch, who did not change the high court’s ideological leaning, Democrats gave McConnell “a gift.” The filibuster prompted McConnell to go “nuclear” and change the voting threshold for Supreme Court nominees from 60 to a simple majority.

None of that is exactly electricity to jolt his party’s outside liberal wing. But Bennet experienced his first real national energy when he clashed with Cruz, accusing the Texas Republican of crying “crocodile tears” for the government shutdown in 2019 after leading the GOP into one in 2013. The clip of their exchange became the most viewed C-SPAN video on Twitter.

The spat hasn’t been forgotten.Asked about Bennet’s campaign, Cruz responded: “As far as I can tell that [speech] is the only basis for his run.”

As his 2020 colleagues discuss killing the filibuster or Medicare for All, Bennet prefers to focus on what he sees as more politically defensible. He says Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill would make private insurance “illegal” and prefers creating a public option. He wants to get rid of the influence of money in politics and ban ex-members of Congress from lobbying. Many of the ideas he has — and even his run for president — are shaped by a book he’s set to soon publish about restoring the state of American politics. The first chapter: “The accidental senator.”

But whether his ideas get widespread attention may depend on whether he can make the debates next month. And even if he does qualify for the debate, he still could be cut based on his polling numbers.

While Bennet says he can win,he knows he faces a brutal mix of challenges, from polling to fundraising to a late start.

I think we’re going to get there on polling and we’re working hard to try to get to the 65,000. It’s not easy,” he said. “It’s a challenge … I haven’t spent the last 10 years of my life running for president and I haven’t spent the last 10 years on cable television.”

Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.

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