There were already roughly 20 Democrats seeking the party’s presidential nomination, of whom all but a handful barely register in early polls.
On Thursday, Sen. Michael Bennet joined the fray. He’s at least the 19th candidate, depending on who’s counted, and the seventh U.S. senator in the race. He’s not even the first Coloradan.
An understated moderate who had been virtually unknown after a decade in Washington until an impassioned denunciation of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during the 35-day government shutdown went viral in January, Bennet announced his candidacy during an appearance on CBS’ “This Morning.”
“My plan is to run for president,” Bennet said, acknowledging that he has a tough road ahead. “I don’t think anybody has as broad a set of experiences in the field, and I think that will distinguish me.”
The announcement, which comes just a couple of weeks after the senator underwent what he says was successful surgery for prostate cancer, follows Joe Biden’s splashy entry into the race last week.
The donor network he’s put together, largely from a stint in 2014 as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, may only go so far toward helping him meet the 65,000-donor threshold needed to earn a spot on the stage (he could also qualify if he gets to 1% in three polls).
Yet Bennet professes to be undaunted, saying he was impelled into the race, despite the long odds, by a long-simmering agitation with the toxicity of partisan politics.
“We have been tyrannized for the last 10 years by the Freedom Caucus,” said Bennet, referencing the small but powerful group of GOP lawmakers that has often stood in the way of broader bipartisan compromises. He also criticized his own party, which he said “doesn’t stand for very much at the national level.”
He continued: “Our politics in Washington lack all imagination and I think to keep going down the rathole with the people who keep dragging us down the rathole just is a fulfilling prophecy of failing as a republic.”
A fiscal hawk in a flock of audacious progressives, Bennet flunks most of the policy litmus tests defining the early campaign: He opposes expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court or scrapping Obamacare in favor of Medicare for all — and is an unapologetic evangelist for legislative compromise.
He made those positions explicit in a launch video also released Thursday, offering himself as a “pragmatic idealist” frustrated with Congress’ inaction on pressing issues.
“I’m not gonna say there’s a simple solution to a problem if I don’t believe there is one,” he said. “You can’t fix a broken Washington if you don’t level with the American people.”
He expanded on his vision and beliefs in a lengthy Medium post, urging citizens to move beyond a politics defined by partisanship and narrow interests.
A member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight that wrote comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 2013, Bennet is eager to go toe-to-toe with President Trump on his signature issue.
The 2013 immigration bill passed the Senate by a wide margin only to die in the GOP-controlled House after the leadership refused to bring it up. It would have created a 13-year path to citizenship for millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally and would have devoted $40 billion to border security.
“Americans are really tired of the intransigence in Congress, the inability to do much of substance because partisanship seems like such a barrier — that’s what Michael is a response to,” said Bill Ritter, the former Colorado governor who appointed Bennet to a vacant Senate seat in 2009. Bennet subsequently won a narrow full-term victory in 2010 and a more comfortable reelection in 2016.
“Michael’s role as a thoughtful, persistent senator who has a real anchor in the substance of governing provides a narrative for him to run for president,” Ritter said.
Translating his frustration with Congress into a platform for a presidential campaign is just one of the challenges facing the senator, who will compete for support in a crowded lane of moderates that includes Biden, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and his fellow Coloradan — and Bennet’s former boss — John Hickenlooper.
Bennet is certain to be one of the more literary contenders vying to take on a president who does not read. His mother was a librarian. His father ran National Public Radio. And his brother, James, is a former editor in chief of the Atlantic and now the editorial page editor for the New York Times.
Inside his wood-paneled Senate office, Bennet holds most meetings around a coffee table piled up with stacks of hardcover releases. He begins conversations by asking what others are reading. After meeting with donors and friends, he often follows up by sending copies of books he has found inspiring.
“If you’re looking for the complete opposite of Donald Trump, Michael Bennet is that guy,” said Frank Luntz, the longtime pollster and political consultant.
In visiting voters in Iowa and New Hampshire in recent months, Bennet carried two books that he gave as thank you gifts: “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, and “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” by Yale historian David Blight.
Starting in June, he potentially could pass out his own book, “The Land of Flickering Lights: Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics.”
A husband and father of three daughters, Bennet is the descendant of Holocaust survivors on his mother’s side and Mayflower voyagers on his father’s. He grew up in Washington, where his father was an aide to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and attended the elite private prep school, St. Albans, before attending Wesleyan University and Yale Law School.
After moving to Denver, Bennet went to work for Phil Anschutz, the conservative billionaire, overseeing the reorganization and consolidation of a number of struggling corporations. He jumped into politics in 2003, serving as chief of staff to Hickenlooper, then the newly elected mayor of Denver.
His decade in the Senate has given him a reputation as a a straight-talking pragmatist that he hopes can now be parlayed into advancement.
“There’s room for maneuvering, especially in these early states,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “Sen. Bennet is obviously a thoughtful, authentic individual with clear views, and I think he has the potential to attract a following. For various reasons, a lot of these candidates do. I don’t think anybody can predict who’s going to attract a significant following and who’s not.”