Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin, is about to visit Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina in the next two weeks. It does not take a political science degree to connect the dots: Those are the first four stops in the 2020 presidential nomination process.
So is the 38-year-old congressman ready to join a Democratic field that is growing by the day? I called him to ask. The answer: not yet. But he’s definitely serious, and said he will make his decision “by early spring, at the latest.”
He should have plenty of company by then if he jumps into the race. Most likely, two of his competitors will be fellow Californians: Sen. Kamala Harris, who is on the brink of announcing her candidacy; and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is contemplating a run. So far, the early polls give the name-recognition to Joe Biden, the former vice president and senator, but there is plenty of space for new faces such as Beto O’Rourke or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to emerge.
What would Swalwell bring to the party that the others would not? In a word: youth. He would not be the youngest in the field, that distinction would go to his House colleague, 37-year-old Tulsi Gabbard, but her campaign seems to have stalled before it began in earnest over her past opposition to gay rights and her oddly solicitous 2017 meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
“I’m not naive, I do see this as a talented field, but I’m inspired by the 27 candidates who helped us win the House (in November) who were in their 40s and under,” Swalwell said in a phone interview Thursday. “I think the country signaled by electing them that they wanted new energy and new ideas and a new confidence.”
This is where Swalwell sees his “lane” in the race. He is the first in his family to graduate from college, has two children under age 2 and still has student debt. In other words, he would be able to relate to Americans’ struggles in ways that others might not.
The crowded field is not the only barrier to Swalwell’s prospects. History is against him. No sitting member of the House of Representatives has advanced to the presidency since James Garfield in 1880. Indeed — are you listening, Kamala Harris? — only three U.S. senators have moved directly to the presidency, the most recent being John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Barack Obama in 2008.
There are plenty of reasons it is difficult to move from the legislative to the executive branch, especially for a congressman who is just one of 435 members of the House. Swalwell, a frequent presence on cable news shows, believes the challenge, while daunting, is no longer insurmountable.
“We’re in this democratized era where a House member who does good work and is agile with social media, broadcast and cable, can show their qualifications,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest difference between the modern era and when Mr. Garfield was elected president.”
So what would a Swalwell candidacy mean to his constituents in the 15th Congressional District, stretching from Fremont and Hayward across the hills to the valley to Livermore? Would they necessarily lose the representative they elected to replace Pete Stark in 2012?
California’s rules would allow Swalwell to run concurrently for his House seat and the presidency. But he insists he will not. Assuming he announces for president — as is likely — he will decide by December, before the Iowa caucuses, whether he is in the race too stay.
“I think it’s important for your constituents that they know what you’re doing ... and to be clear that you’re not hedging or trying to audition for something else,” he said. “People see through that. I wouldn’t do that.”
California’s move to a March 3 primary — after only the contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — would seem to give a home-field advantage to a homegrown candidate. The opportunity is not lost on Harris or Garcetti, or Swalwell.
For Democrats, the long-term concern must be whether a bruising primary battle might weaken the eventual nominee in a general election.
“If we were not running against Donald Trump, I would be concerned about that,” Swalwell said. “In many ways, the race is going to be a referendum on Donald Trump. We need someone credible, qualified, aspirational to unite the country.”
As recent days have shown, many Democrats are prepared to step forward for the challenge.