The Democratic candidates are literally bumping into each other on the trail

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent
Sen. Bernie Sanders with Sen. Sherrod Brown. (Photo: Nicole Craine/Bloomberg)

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, one of the 12 top candidates in the crowded Democratic presidential primary, spent a lot of time last weekend with Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who says he is going to make a decision about whether to enter the fold by the end of this month. The pair both attended an oyster roast thrown by the Dorchester County Democratic Party in South Carolina on Saturday. Then they ended up on the same flight en route to the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights anniversary ceremonies in Selma, Ala., on Saturday night where they were accompanied by yet another presidential candidate — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

It was a dramatic illustration of just how packed the Democratic primary is going to be and an indication the many hopefuls will find themselves in close quarters over the next year or more. The situation can prove fraught. Over the past few months, as we saw a spate of splashy announcements, staffers worked frantically behind the scenes to ensure their candidate wasn’t double booked and could have a moment alone in the spotlight. But even as they’re bumping into each other on the campaign trail, many of the Democratic candidates insist the crowded race will be a cordial one.

Brown’s curly mop of hair shook with laughter as he told reporters about the odd spectacle of his politically star-studded trip to Alabama at a breakfast event in Selma on Sunday.

“Cory and Bernie and I were on the same plane, how funny is that?” Brown asked.

Brown said the situation wasn’t awkward.

“It’s fine. My wife was talking to Bernie at length when we were waiting to get our luggage,” he said.

And the candidates weren’t done with each other after that flight. Brown, Booker and Sanders all attended the breakfast and made short speeches. A fourth presidential campaigner, Julián Castro, the former HUD secretary and mayor of San Antonio, was also supposed to be there. Castro was scheduled to appear at the breakfast, but on Sunday morning, he abruptly announced he would not attend. Castro’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment about why he missed the event.

Another batch of candidates will be rubbing shoulders at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, next weekend. Eight declared Democratic candidates are set to make appearances during the annual music, media and arts confab including Castro, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, and the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigeig. Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, is also due to appear at the festival as he mulls whether to enter the presidential race after narrowly losing a Senate seat in his home state.

On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who is mounting a primary challenge to President Trump, and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is considering a similar move, are also coming to Austin.

In case you lost track of all those names and titles, that’s nearly a dozen confirmed and potential presidential candidates sharing billing at the same event. Many of them will be making back-to-back appearances on the same stage at Austin’s Moody Theater.

Meanwhile, back in Alabama last Sunday, Booker and Brown both participated in a church service and the annual march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma following their breakfast. At times, the potential presidential pair were nearly arm in arm as they sang spirituals and protest songs. At the foot of the bridge, they were joined by a Democratic candidate from 2016, Hillary Clinton, who, at that point, was still being coy about whether she would run again in 2020. As the march wrapped up, Booker and Clinton were deep in conversation.

“She was just giving me her take on the race, thoughts that she had about me, who she still thought might be running, who not,” Booker told Yahoo News. “She was more just talking to me about how am I doing, how am I holding up, how am I dealing with the pace and all that.”

Booker said he appreciated the opportunity to hear from Clinton given her experience as “one of the handful of people that have run for president before.” He said she is definitely keeping an eye on the current race and praised her as “one of the more informed, intelligent” people from whom he can seek counsel.

“People give her husband a lot of credit for being politically insightful,” he added, “but she has such great keen observation that every time I talk to her, I get something from it.”

Sen. Cory Booker with supporters in Selma, Ala. (Photo: Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters)

The following day, Clinton officially declared she won’t be running again next year. On Tuesday, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who had been laying ground work in early states for a potential campaign, also took himself out of the running. Seven hours after Merkley’s announcement, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg also ended his flirtation with the race.

But even with those departures, the already clogged field could still grow. In addition to O’Rourke, former Vice President Joe Biden has said he’s mulling a run. And even without Bloomberg, there are two other New Yorkers who are openly considering launching presidential campaigns: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Sherrod Brown with reporters in Selma, Ala. (Photo: Julie Bennett/AP)

Despite the crush of candidates, Brown said he was confident the primary would remain a cordial affair. He predicted it would be “different” than the contentious 2016 Republican presidential primary, in part, because he said Democrats have been fighting the “same fights” on issues like income inequality.

The Republican primary “was a bunch of people that took shots at each other, that didn’t clearly like each other,” Brown said. “You know Republicans like to do nasty politics.”

Brown accused the Republicans of using tactics like voter suppression and “name calling” because the party doesn’t otherwise have the majority needed to win nationally.

By contrast, Brown insisted the Democrats all “have respect for each other.”

“We have some disagreements,” Brown continued, “but our goal is to make sure this president doesn’t inflict four more years of damage to our great country.”

Still, it’s not all smiles and hugs in the Democratic field. Some of the campaigns and proto-campaigns have tried to push out negative stories about their rivals, or as Brown did, assert statements about their rivals’ records that are not completely accurate.

“If I run I’ll be the only Democrat on that stage that voted against the Iraq War. I’ll be the only Democrat on that stage that came out and supported marriage equality 20 years ago. I’ll be the only person on that stage that has a longtime ‘F’ from the NRA. I’ll be the only Democrat that voted against NAFTA,” Brown said.

Sanders, Brown and Inslee are the only members of the current field who were in Congress before 2007. Contrary to Brown’s claims, all three of them voted against the Iraq War. Inslee voted for NAFTA, but Brown and Sanders both voted against the trade agreement. Brown’s campaign website cites his vote against the Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s as one of his key moments of support for gay marriage. Sanders also voted against that legislation. While Sanders doesn’t have a solid “F” rating from the NRA, his grade with the gun rights organization has never risen above a “C-minus.”

The rest of the field doesn’t have records as long as Brown and Sanders. None of them were in Congress when the Iraq War began or when NAFTA was passed. However, multiple Democratic candidates have earned “F” ratings from the NRA and supported gay marriage. And Buttigeig, who married his husband in 2017, would be the first openly gay president if he is elected.

Though the first shots have already been fired, it was amicable when Booker and Brown once again found themselves on the same flight out of Alabama Sunday evening. Their plane was delayed and the pair spent a few hours together in the Montgomery Airport with their staffers and a trio of journalists, including Yahoo News. They came off as old friends as they laughed and regaled the reporters with stories from the Senate cloakroom.

Booker had only good things to say when Yahoo News asked him what it was like to cross paths with his fellow White House hopefuls over the weekend.

“Sen. Brown, he’s just a great guy. He’s just somebody I’ve worked a lot with. And Bernie, I guess I’ll be seeing him everywhere because he’s a fellow presidential candidate, but I bumped into him in the airport on the way,” said Booker.

Booker was certain the race would remain civil — though he threw in one important note of caution.

“Absolutely,” Booker said when asked if the race will stay positive, before adding “with the candidates themselves.”

“Who knows about the supporters?” Booker asked.

That concern seems well-founded. In the 2016 primary, Clinton and Sanders backers feuded online and at campaign events even after the pair joined forces once Clinton secured the nomination. Likely with that history in mind, Sanders sent an email to over 100 of his top supporters and surrogates days after he announced his 2020 bid last month, urging them to “engage respectfully” with rivals and refrain from “bullying and harassment of any kind.”

Despite entreaties from the candidates, it’s unclear whether this fragile peace can hold. And social media will likely be ground zero for fierce intra-party battles. Even with the race in its infancy, a quick scan of Facebook or Twitter already turns up fans of the various candidates disparaging other hopefuls and their supporters.

Booker, who built national star power by using Twitter extensively during his time as mayor of Newark, N.J., said the site has changed since he first joined it in 2008.

“It’s become a darker place,” he said.

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