Most potential Democratic presidential contenders are publicly playing coy about their plans for 2020. Behind the scenes, however, the race is already well underway.
Democratic operatives are interviewing for potential roles on as-yet-unannounced 2020 campaigns, and prospective candidates are making calls to elected officials in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Those Democrats considering runs are also talking to top supporters and allies -- people who would likely become key donors in a presidential campaign.
Campaigns haven't formed, and most top potential candidates are dodging presidential questions by saying they are still only thinking about a run. But there's a frenetic effort on the part of many of these would-be contenders to begin to lay the groundwork for a presidential bid, all meant to make sure a candidate is ready to hit the ground running as soon as he or she says go.
The spectrum of Democratic politicians considering runs are at different points in the decision-making process.
Some, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, are expected to launch bids and their advisers are fielding countless résumés from Democratic operatives looking to line up for the 2020 fight.
Warren's staff, according to a source close to the senator, has already had "extensive discussions" with early state operatives, while Warren herself has made frequent calls to political and grass-roots leaders in early states, ensuring that those political leaders know she is leaning into a possible presidential bid.
Harris, according to a source close to her, has made calls to potential early state and national operatives who are interested in working for her possible campaign and has met with a few potential operatives in person. The source described the conversations as discussions about her potential candidacy and each operative's specific possible role with the campaign.
As former Vice President Joe Biden weighs a possible bid -- he told an audience Monday that he was the "most qualified person in the country to be president" -- his inner circle of advisers is also working to make sure he is well positioned to launch a campaign should he decide to run. Since the midterm elections, Biden has maintained contact and made calls to donors and key constituencies but has not explicitly discussed his 2020 intentions in those conversations, a source familiar with the discussions said.
Biden's political team has also held initial conversations about potential staffing for a presidential campaign with those already in the former vice president's orbit, as well as Democratic operatives who have reached out expressing interest in working for a possible Biden campaign, the source said. The source added that no commitments had been made.
For prospective aides, the importance of joining a campaign that is likely to be in the race for months, not weeks, was made clear on Wednesday, when news broke that former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick was telling aides and advisers that he was not going to run for President. Patrick had begun to put a small team together ahead of what many expected to be a presidential bid, and his departure leaves some operatives who had been accounted for to find new jobs.
Some campaigns took notice. According to a source in Patrick's orbit, people close to Biden's nascent 2020 operation called those associated with Patrick to ask about aides who are now available to join another team.
The race for talent began long before the 2018 midterms -- despite prospective candidates claiming to be entirely focused on those races -- but has stepped up in recent weeks.
Few hires have actually been made, Democrats close to the different possible candidates said, but operatives looking to work for 2020 campaigns have begun feverishly shopping their résumés to aides aligned with top Democratic hopefuls.
There is an awkward tension to the outreach: Aides to top Democrats don't want to tip their bosses' hands too much to prospective hires, but they also want to give top operatives enough certainty that they will have jobs, should the prospective candidate jump in.
"It's less a fantasy draft and more 'The Hunger Games,' " said one veteran of Hillary Clinton's 2016 bid looking to work for a campaign.
Some Democrats, especially those who have less national name recognition and are closer to announcing their candidacies, have been even more assertive.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is aggressively looking to lock in a possible team and has personally interviewed 30 prospective aides and advisers for a potential 2020 run, a source close to the governor tells CNN. His leadership PAC -- Giddy Up PAC -- has interviewed an additional 50 people for possible 2020 roles, the source added. A Democrat who has talked to Hickenlooper's team said they are flying people to Denver to conduct final interviews in person.
The same is true for former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, who Democratic operatives say is almost certainly running for President. He has reached out to a series of Texas-based and national Democrats to put together the outlines a team for his eventual announcement, multiple Democrats said.
In a disparate and diverse field, staffing could be a key way for Democratic candidates to differentiate themselves right out of the gate. And locking in good staff early could be essential, given there could be upward of two dozen Democrats looking to hire top-flight staff for 2020 campaigns.
"There is a really heavy premium on folks needing to snap up talent early, anticipating there are going to be so many folks entering the ring," said a Democratic operative who has interviewed for jobs with prospective candidates. "Before necessarily deciding whether the campaign is even going to happen, people are thinking about the things they need to have out of the gate."
Some potential contenders, like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Biden, have existing political operations they can tap into for 2020 runs.
Sanders' 2016 campaign remains partially intact through Our Revolution, the senator's super PAC, and aides who worked for him two years ago are waiting to see if there are spots for them in 2020. Rich Pelletier, the deputy campaign manager for Sanders' 2016 run, even founded a new PAC -- "Organizing for Bernie" -- this month.
"There's already a network of people: delegates, former staffers, former supporters, new people who want to be supportive," Sanders' former campaign manager and close adviser Jeff Weaver said during a midterm swing in October. "That's one advantage he would have, if he chose to run, is that he has this network which can be very quickly activated."
Biden, after eight years in the White House, formed American Possibilities, a PAC run by his longtime aide Greg Schultz that was widely seen as a precursor to a possible 2020 run.
Warren, too, has begun to stockpile possible aides in her Senate office in Washington and through her successful 2018 Senate campaign in Boston, where Democrats believe the liberal senator would base her likely 2020 presidential campaign.
Potential candidates like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Biden have also burned up their phone lines in the days after the midterms, calling elected officials who won competitive races. Booker, said a source familiar with his post-election moves, has made dozens of calls to early-state elected officials and people he campaigned for.
Those conversations have continued into December. Terry McAuliffe, a former governor of Virginia and a Democrat who is considering throwing his hat in the 2020 ring, made over 200 calls to allies in the last week.
"He is very much considering doing it," said a McAuliffe adviser. "You don't do that if you are not thinking about it."
One thing that has surprised some Democrats in early states has been the lack of trips by top Democratic contenders in December.
But Matt Paul, Hillary Clinton's Iowa state director during the caucuses in 2016, said candidates need to spend more time this month focusing on their decision-making processes, not making trips to early states quite yet.
"Hopefully these candidates are getting unvarnished guidance about what this is going to take. It is a grueling schedule, it carries an enormous personal toll and these candidates have to have a clear and crisp view of why they want to do this," Paul said. "It is smart that they are taking the time to consider these factors."
Some Democrats, though, have decided to head straight to early states -- namely Iowa and New Hampshire.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat who is considering a 2020 bid, was in Iowa on Tuesday. Booker will travel to New Hampshire on Saturday, where he will headline a New Hampshire Democratic Party "Post-Election Victory Celebration."
Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg are heading to Iowa later this month for a holiday party put on by Progress Iowa, a liberal organizing group in the state.
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