Cory Booker has set himself apart from the 2020 Democratic presidential field with a decidedly positive and unifying message, evoking the hope-and-change campaign of Barack Obama.
Brady Quirk-Garvan was so inspired by it that he resigned from his post as the chair of the Charleston County Democrats in South Carolina to endorse the New Jersey senator, confident that his approach was the best way to defeat a divisive figure like President Donald Trump.
“Barack Obama won by talking about hope and change. Bill Clinton won by talking about the promise of the 21st century,” said Quirk-Garvan, who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign. “Democrats win when we talk about laying out a positive vision for the future.”
But another member of Obama’s 2008 campaign, former South Carolina Rep. Bakari Sellers, isn’t sold on the approach, arguing that it’s out of step with an enraged progressive base that’s eager to take down Trump.
“Messaging for Cory is probably the largest issue that he has,” said former South Carolina state Rep. Bakari Sellers. “He speaks with a message of love that is similar to hope and change. But people want to know what he stands for. Those of us that know him think he can articulate that, but he’s going to have to do that in short order.”
“There’s not going to be another Barack Obama,” added Sellers, who has not endorsed a presidential candidate but spoke highly of Kamala Harris. “A 2008 message is not going to work in 2020.”
It’s not just rhetoric where Booker’s out of line with Democratic activists. It’s policy, and a record on several issues that anti-corporate liberals still view skeptically despite Booker moving to the left in recent months. Booker has established close ties with Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry, Silicon Valley and charter school advocates -- ties that weren’t always viewed by Democrats as sins, but are sure to receive more scrutiny in a competitive and increasingly liberal primary.
“For a lot of people, those associations, they wouldn’t view them positively,” said Larry Drake, the chairman of the Rockingham County Democrats in New Hampshire. “Whether that’s disqualifying, that depends on the individual.”
Whether Booker can square his optimistic vision with the fiery progressive base he needs to make inroads with is the central challenge of his presidential bid, according to interviews with more than a dozen Democratic operatives and officials.
“For him, it’s about striking a balance between his hopeful and inspirational message for the party, but also demonstrating that he can throw a strong political right hook and can be tough when he needs to be,” said Matt Paul, who ran Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Iowa caucus operation.
In the month since Booker launched his presidential campaign, he has frequently visited the early states and assembled well-regarded teams, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina. Still, he has continued to poll in the single digits as an already crowded Democratic field grows ever larger. He also has not announced any fundraising totals, as some of his rivals have.
That hasn’t phased Booker’s team, which believes his authenticity and uplifting message will ultimately resonate with Democratic voters who are looking for an antidote to Trump’s abrasive and brash style.
“Barack Obama won on ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ Donald Trump’s campaign was ‘divide and conquer,’ and I believe the American voters now want ‘unity’ and ‘respect,’” said New Hampshire Democratic strategist Jim Demers, who supports Booker and has called him “Obama 2.0.” “This country is so divided and we must come together. And people want Congress to get things done by finding common ground as well.”
Booker’s style is a reason why the 49-year-old has been considered a rising star every since becoming mayor of Newark nearly 13 years ago. And it’s certainly made him a unique figure in the Democratic primary race. For instance, in the last few weeks, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Harris have all referred to Trump as racist.
Booker wouldn’t go there, though, saying he couldn’t know what was in Trump’s heart. In fact, he has gone as far as to say in the past that he loves the president.
Other candidates, most notably Elizabeth Warren and Sanders, have more overtly centered their campaigns on fighting Trump, as well as the larger political and economic establishment. Drake, the New Hampshire county party chairman, said that while many voters view Booker favorably, they are still trying to decide whether they want a candidate who has a more combative spirit.
“A lot of people are torn,” Drake said. “On the one hand, people want someone who can stick it to Trump. On the other hand, his message of appealing to the best of people is attractive. I think a lot of people want both.”
While supporters of Booker have drawn comparisons to Obama, Democrats question whether Booker is the best candidate to mobilize the former president’s coalition of nonwhite and young voters. Harris is also making an aggressive play for those voters, and former Vice president Joe Biden, who is still mulling a run, maintains a significant foothold with that slice of the electorate.
All three contenders would be banking on a strong finish in South Carolina, where black voters make up the majority of the primary electorate.
“It’s really difficult. There’s only one Obama,” said former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges. “Harris is probably better positioned to make that argument because she happens to be a woman of color in the race, which hasn’t been done before. She is the new candidate that’s fresh for voters in South Carolina.”
Former Obama campaign aide Ben LaBolt said that while it would be a mistake for Booker or any other candidate to try to replicate an old campaign playbook, a hopeful message could still resonate in 2020.
“There’s no doubt Democratic primary electorate is bloodthirsty and more fired up than they’ve been in decades in oppose to who’s in office,” LaBolt said. “But I wouldn’t rule out a happy warrior approach. You can be optimistic and draw contrasts at same time.”
While Booker is pushing a unifying message, his policy positions have moved to the left over the years. He is now campaigning on a progressive platform that includes support for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a federal jobs guarantee and legalizing marijuana. Still, some liberals remain wary of him.
During his career, Booker has been a leading recipient of campaign contributions from financial firms and pharmaceutical companies. He’s been a proponent of charter schools. And he’s forged bonds with Silicon Valley, most notably when he helped secure a $100 million donation from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for an educational fund to benefit Newark schools.
Booker has tried to ease concerns of the liberal base. He teamed up with Sanders and other Democrats on a set of bills earlier this year to lower prescription drug costs. He is rejecting support from corporate and super PACs (as are most other Democratic candidates). And he earned plaudits for grilling Zuckerberg during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last year.
But, the party’s left flank still sees plenty to be desired.
In 2017, Booker was one of 13 Democrats to vote against a measure, co-sponsored by Klobuchar and Sanders, that would have allowed cheaper prescription drugs to be imported from abroad. While other candidates such as Sanders and Warren have criticized Amazon’s economic influence, Booker is publicly lobbying for the tech giant to place its new headquarters in Newark. And in January, he spoke at an event in New Orleans co-sponsored by a charter school system.
“He maybe has the best raw political skills of anyone who’s announced so far. And this time around, authenticity really matters,” said Rebecca Katz, a New York-based progressive strategist. “But who is he accountable to? The jury still out on that for Cory Booker. … This is not a race where you can be all things to all people.”
And as for the liberals who applaud Booker’s current positions, they want to hear more on how he plans to implement them without embracing structural changes, such as eliminating the filibuster in the Senate.
“He’s really only half of what they’re looking for,” said Ezra Levin, the co-executive director of the liberal grassroots group Indivisible. “They don’t just want fiery speeches. They want to know how they’re going to get it done.”
Booker’s education stances could also hurt him with a uniquely active part of the Democratic base: public school teachers. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that she recently met with Booker and was pleased that he supported the recent teachers’ strike in Los Angeles. But she said she still saw his overall record as a “mixed bag.”
“Frankly, I don’t think he spent time, energy and effort to strengthen public schools when he was in Newark,” Weingarten said. “I’m going to say that he is a work in progress right now.”
The Booker campaign is attempting to address these doubts. Clay Middleton, a senior adviser for Booker in South Carolina, said he ensured there would be attendees at a recent campaign event in Charleston that would ask about charter schools. Middleton said that Booker explained how he worked to strengthen public schools, and that the way he handled charter schools in Newark wouldn’t necessarily apply to other places.
“Part of the process of running for president is, you have to meet people and explain your record, and don’t let others create a narrative,” Middleton said. “Create it yourself.”
As quickly as the party has moved to the left in just the past several years, no Democratic presidential candidate is going to be able to credibly claim a spotless progressive record. But even if these issues are not at the forefront of the campaign on a regular basis, Booker’s opponents could use them to as differentiators in a field where the candidates are otherwise largely on the same page on the issues.
“We’re still in the touchy-feely, puppies and rainbows part of the campaign. The candidates are going to have to distinguish themselves,” Paul said. “For Sen. Booker, that might need to happen sooner rather than later.”