Cory Booker’s Senate colleagues might have gotten the jump on him with their splashy — and earlier — presidential announcements. But early state officials say there’s little cause for worry.
Over the last year, the New Jersey senator and his team have carefully planted the seeds for a White House run with an under-the-radar campaign that has generated a considerable amount of early state goodwill. He’s headlined political events in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, campaigned and raised money for local candidates and forged relationships with key Democratic officials — particularly in the South.
Story Continued Below
Recently, he made visits to Louisiana, for an event with Rep. Cedric Richmond, and to Georgia, where he and Rep. John Lewis met with former President Jimmy Carter, who urged Booker to run for president.
“He did a visit down here to stump for a congressional candidate — we were one of the seats to flip. I will say, his staff and the senator himself have been in regular contact with not just myself but other folks in South Carolina since then,” said Brady Quirk-Garvan, chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party. “Whenever the announcement comes, they’ve been laying the groundwork for many, many months. I think he’s going to start on strong footing.”
A gifted orator with a mayor’s retail chops, Booker delivered preacher-style addresses in South Carolina and Iowa last October, in each case before crowds numbering more than 1,000 and followed by state tours and meetings with party officials. In addition to speaking at top political events in New Hampshire, he made sizable financial contributions to Democrats in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
Last week, Booker returned to South Carolina, which hosts the South’s first primary, to deliver a major speech at a NAACP rally to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. He concluded his remarks with a nod to what’s expected to be his central campaign message: love and unity.
A Booker adviser with knowledge of his strategy acknowledged the pressures to launch early in a crowded field but said the campaign believes it has more runway than other 2020 contenders. That’s due in part to the groundwork the senator has already laid in early states, but also because of Booker’s success with staff recruitment — even before having a formal presidential campaign apparatus, the adviser said.
In Iowa, for example, Booker locked down top-flight operatives including Tess Seger, the former communications director for the Iowa Democratic Party; Haley Hager, who acted as Iowa state director of billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen operation; Joe O’Hern who acted as Martin O’Malley’s 2016 caucus director; and Mike Frosolone, a veteran Iowa operative who steered the Iowa House Democrats’ political operation.
Since late last year, Booker and his chief of staff, Matt Klapper, have been interviewing talent for key positions in a possible presidential campaign. The senator is expected to tap as campaign manager Addisu Demissie, an Organizing for America veteran who’s fresh from running the campaign of newly elected California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Demissie also ran Booker’s 2013 Senate race.
Booker’s stature in the early states is rooted in his comfort in large, town hall style settings and bolstered by attention to detail — Booker follows up his events with personal phone calls, visits and even autographed selfie pictures. Before the midterm elections, Booker spoke before Democrats in both Iowa and South Carolina to audiences filled with elected officials, and activists.
Former Orangeburg County Democratic chair Betty Henderson, whose namesake cook-off last fall drew some 1,200 South Carolina Democrats, said Booker’s soaring speech last October made a lasting impression.
“He was very, very impressive,” said Henderson. “The crowd loved him. They loved his message, they loved the interactions with him.”
Booker kept in touch with Henderson, calling her from time to time, including last week before he returned to South Carolina for his MLK speech.
“Cory Booker is the only person who has called me directly,” Henderson said of a stream of 2020 candidates who have traipsed through South Carolina in recent weeks. “I assume I will hear from some of the others at a later date.”
In Iowa, Booker spoke to a captive audience at the Democrats’ Fall Gala, a major fundraiser that drew some 1,500 people last October. Afterward, Booker snapped selfies with dozens of enthralled activists who were surprised to later receive a mailed copy of that photo with a personal letter from the senator himself.
In New Hampshire, Booker landed a coveted end-of-the-year speaking gig, putting him in front of New Hampshire Democrats in December — just as the party was celebrating the historic gains it made in the November midterm election. Booker’s assistance to their cause led state party chairman Ray Buckley to call him “the best friend New Hampshire Democrats had in 2018.”
As he lapped up the goodwill from a room filled with party stakeholders across the state, Booker could also boast he had donated more in New Hampshire midterm elections than any of his 2020 competitors — he contributed $170,000 to help in local races.
“Nobody came close to that,” said Jim Demers, former New Hampshire co-chair to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. “For a lot of people who needed assistance, he was there for them. The results in New Hampshire speak for themselves. There are people in New Hampshire who are very thankful that Cory Booker stepped up.”
Demers first announced he was firmly in Booker’s camp in March 2018, an early commitment reminiscent of his own Obama experience — Demers backed Obama as early as 2006. The veteran Democratic operative said he was taken by Booker’s quest to close deepening divisions in today’s political discourse.
“I feel that his message of unity is what we need as a country. Rather than seeing candidates argue ‘it’s us against them,’ it’s how do we get us and them to work together for the good of the country?” Demers said. “Until we have a president who changes the tone and changes the style of leadership, nothing will change. How do we find common ground so we can move America forward? At least Cory Booker is talking about that.”