The 2020 Democratic presidential primary is shaping up as a rhetorical race to the far left, and Sen. Cory A. Booker is making his bid for front-runner status with some of the most incendiary jabs to date.
The New Jersey Democrat has accused Republicans of “treasonous” behavior for releasing an intelligence memo and staged a scolding last month of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen that quickly went viral.
“Your silence and your amnesia is complicity,” Mr. Booker said, thundering that Ms. Nielsen had enabled President Trump’s derogatory “s—-hole” comments about Haiti and other developing nations just days earlier.
In a presidential field that some analysts expect to encompass 20 Democrats, the need to gain attention is likely to push candidates to stage even more dramatic moments.
“How does Booker make himself stand out, especially when there will probably be some marquee names in the field? Become a champion on the issues the Democratic base cares about,” said Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It isn’t just issues. The anti-Trump fervor among people who will vote in the Democratic primaries and caucuses couldn’t be more intense, and that is very unlikely to dim.
“While I don’t think the vociferousness of your Trump denunciations will be the lone determinant of winning by any means, it will certainly be one of them,” he said. “Democrats haven’t hated a Republican president so much since Nixon in his final year. And no, I haven’t forgotten about Dubya.”
Every presidential primary in the internet era has been a race to the extremes, and the 2020 Democratic contest is looking to be no different.
Sen. Bernard Sanders set the tone early on with his Medicare-for-all plan, which many of his fellow Democratic hopefuls endorsed. Mr. Sanders, Mr. Booker and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York and Kamala D. Harris of California also were part of the Democratic filibuster that sent the government into a three-day partial shutdown last month.
They voted against most of Mr. Trump’s Cabinet nominees, a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and the $1.5 trillion tax overhaul. They also labeled the commander in chief a “racist bully,” the “alt-right apologist in chief” and a “pathological liar.”
Ms. Gillibrand in particular has shifted over the years. She ran for the U.S. House as a supporter of stricter immigration controls and gun rights, but she now has the most anti-Trump record of any senator, voting with the president just 8.1 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Ms. Warren places second with a score of 9.7 percent. Mr. Booker and Mr. Sanders are tied for fourth place at 12.9 percent, and Ms. Harris sits in seventh at 14.5 percent.
John Hudak of the Brookings Institution said the candidates are looking at Hillary Clinton’s struggles in 2016 and concluding that she wasn’t liberal enough for Democratic primary voters.
“Whether that is right or not, that is what Democratic candidates are observing, and people are thinking that the path to success is not through the middle of the party, but it is by beating people like Bernie Sanders, and the way to beat Bernie Sanders is to play his own game, and that is what they are doing,” he said.
The field of Democratic candidates also could include former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who was met Wednesday with chants of “Run, Joe, run” on Capitol Hill, and former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that he is considering a presidential bid.
The 2020 push to the left mirrors the sprint to the right in the 2012 Republican nomination battle, where Republicans looked to tap into the energy of the tea party movement that had risen up against President Obama.
“You had a lot of people running to the right trying to be more right-wing than the next person on the Republican side, but what happened is they ended up dividing the right too much, and who emerged was the more moderate candidate in Mitt Romney,” Mr. Hudak said.
Jim Demers, a co-chairman for Mr. Obama’s campaigns in New Hampshire in 2008 and 2012, said the candidates are just responding to Mr. Trump’s political lurches.
“I think it is more of a natural move for progressive candidates to be speaking out on the issues because we are in a different place today than we were a year ago,” Mr. Demers said. “So for some it might look like the candidates are reaching to the left. I think they are actually moving back to where most of the voters were hoping we would be when this last election took place.”
Mr. Demers, who also served as an adviser to Mrs. Clinton in 2016, said Mr. Booker stands out from the pack.
“I do put him at the No. 1 spot on my list right now,” Mr. Demers said.
He said he was impressed when Mr. Booker took the extraordinary step last year of requesting time to testify as a witness against the confirmation of a colleague, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, to be attorney general.
This year, he is come out swinging with his scolding of Ms. Nielsen and a radio appearance last week in which he said the release of the Republican memo detailing potential abuses in the FBI’s secret surveillance warrant against former Trump campaign figure Carter Page was over the top.
“I might say tantamount to treasonous in the sense of when you violate the intelligence community’s mandates around classified documentation and what should be released you could be betraying or especially if you are revealing sources and methods, or giving some color to sources and methods, you are actually endangering fellow Americans in the intelligence community and our ability to source intelligence,” Mr. Booker said on the “Make It Plain” radio show. “So to me, this is something that could be potentially viewed as treasonous.”
Republicans said the concerns over sources and methods were overblown and the only secrets the memo revealed were that the FBI used a Yahoo News article to help justify the spying.
Mr. Booker’s spokesman said he stands by his comments.
Fueled by his newfound rhetorical fire, Mr. Booker’s profile is growing. His Twitter following nearly doubled over the past 14 months to nearly 4 million.
Liberal groups say they are impressed not just with his rhetoric but also with his stances.
“Booker has a strong record of voting against President Trump’s right-wing agenda and nominees, and was a bold voice in two of the most important legislative fights of 2017: protecting the Affordable Care Act and fighting back against the Republican tax scam,” said Nick Berning, a spokesman for Moveon.org.
If he does run for the White House, Mr. Booker is certain to face criticism from fellow Democrats over his history of supporting school choice, including the time he served alongside Betsy DeVos on the board of the Alliance for School Choice, which bills itself as the largest nonprofit organization promoting school choice programs.
Mr. Booker also angered activists by opposing a bill to allow for prescription drugs to be reimported to the U.S.
Looking to ease concerns, Mr. Booker last year put a “pause” on accepting Big Pharma donations and voted against confirming Mrs. DeVos as Mr. Trump’s education secretary.
Mr. Booker also has executive experience with his two terms as mayor of Newark, giving him a record of local accomplishments.
“He is smart and a great communicator, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that he is better equipped than most of his Democrat colleagues to fill the void of Democrat leadership nationally,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican Party strategist and adviser to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. “Sen. Booker is the anti-Donald Trump both in terms of substance and style, so he may be what Democrats nationally will be looking for in the future.”