WASHINGTON -- It is a truth universally acknowledged that while the Republicans have too many candidates for 2016, the Democrats have too few. If Hillary Clinton doesn't run or her presidential campaign implodes, the thinking goes, her party has no bench, no backup, no Plan B.
The list of Democrats who have publicly suggested they might run is indeed skimpy. But it’s misleading to compare the depth of the two parties simply by counting the number of self-declared possible candidates. Every Republican who ever looked in the mirror and saw a president is hinting at a run, hoping to generate press, test the reaction and even begin to build momentum. For GOP-ers, there's no downside to being talked about as a potential candidate. But not many A-list Democrats are mounting the same kind of PR campaign.
Several Democratic strategists, pollsters and party insiders interviewed for this article were eager to refute the idea that the party has no bench, and to suggest names of pols who could be viable 2016 candidates. But they didn’t want their own names attached to this article and refused to be quoted on the record. No one wants to be seen as encouraging someone to run against Clinton.
That same fear appears to be keeping potential candidates quiet as well. Very few in Democratic circles are willing to alienate the Clintons. The couple has built a massive political operation. They command the loyalty of hundreds of donors and bundlers. An endorsement from the Clinton family can tip the scales for a candidate. And the Clintons are known to hold grudges. Bill Clinton remained angry for years that Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy backed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008.
The Democrats do have real challenges in 2016 -- and perhaps even further ahead. They lost a number of governor races in 2010 and 2014 that are typically jumping-off points for presidential candidates. The party's losses went all the way down to the local level, depleting the ranks for candidate development for years to come. That so many who could run are -- so far -- sitting this one out means that potential 2020 or 2024 candidates and staffers aren’t getting the experience they need to build strong campaigns in the future.
Still, the party's ranks aren't as thin as it seems at first look.
There are three Democrats publicly toying with a run: Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. Only Webb, who is more moderate than Clinton, has launched an exploratory committee. O’Malley hired staff for his PAC at the end of the year, but has delayed making an actual announcement. And Sanders hasn’t made clear whether he’s actually running or just enjoying the attention that comes with suggesting he might.
All three have liabilities. Sanders is a self-described socialist, so there's essentially no chance that he could win a national election, or even the primary. Webb served only one term in the Senate and retired from office in 2012. Against a field of current Republican officeholders (or a two-term governor like Jeb Bush), he could look inexperienced. And O’Malley, who served two terms as governor and proved he could fund-raise as the head of the Democratic Governors Association, would face criticism for the problems in his state -- like the unemployment rate -- as he leaves office.
But the Democrats have a long time to find a Clinton alternative, if they need one. With all the bustle right now of Republicans getting ready to run, it may seem as though February is the deadline to start a campaign. In fact, Mitt Romney didn’t announce his 2012 exploratory committee until April of 2011. That October, donors and GOP insiders were still trying to get New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to jump in.
It's easier for a candidate with high name recognition to start late. Vice President Joe Biden, who has already run two presidential campaigns, has made clear that as long as Clinton is running, he’s out of the game. But if circumstances changed, he would be able to quickly pull together a team, and he's already known by the voters, especially in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. But Biden is vulnerable: He's prone to gaffes, 72 years old, and tied even more closely than Hillary Clinton to the polarizing Obama administration.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has built up significant name recognition and an energized fan base. Her drawbacks: She's far more liberal than Obama and would have to overcome what would surely be a downpour of donations from Wall Street to her opponents because of her stern views on financial regulations. Warren also has consistently said she's not interested in running.
While name recognition helps, it isn’t everything. In a modern campaign where super PACs can raise untold sums, name recognition can be purchased by flooding airways with ads. If Clinton were no longer in the mix, candidates with unique appeal could make up lost ground if they offered other important attributes. There are several Democratic governors who meet those criteria. Governors have tended to be strong presidential candidates: They aren’t tied to Washington; they have already been vetted, to some degree, in their home state; and they have executive experience, a frequent criticism of Obama.
Montana's Democratic governor Steve Bullock is also a viable candidate. He’s only in his first term in the mostly conservative state -- and his freshman status would make a 2016 campaign more difficult; however, it could also set up speculation for vice presidential nominations or future campaigns.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was barely re-elected in his perennial swing state last year. But his experience as governor could make a strong platform, even if the state’s legalization of marijuana might be a liability in the South. New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan would also offer an appealing candidacy, especially since she represents an early swing state and would have an easier time in the primary.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick left office in mid-January and has joined a Massachusetts Institute of Technology innovation project -- a good public and private background from which to launch a campaign. Before Obama was elected, it was a badly kept secret that Patrick had designs on being the first African-American president, but he has ruled out a run for 2016. In a wide open field, governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo or Delaware’s Jack Markell could have a shot. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, while too new to consider a 2016 run, could be a realistic option farther down the road.
Democrats could also round up several viable candidates from the U.S. Senate. It might be harder for a senator to get elected after all the criticism of Obama’s lack of executive experience. But Virginia has two senators -- Mark Warner and Tim Kaine -- who served as governors before they were elected to the Senate. Warner has positioned himself as a moderate and a member who wants to get things done, working on several bipartisan initiatives while in the Senate.
Democrats boast several women senators in addition to Warren who would be able to assemble a presidential campaign: Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand. And for 2016 -- or more likely, in future years -- there are young Democrats who are gaining popularity, like New Jersey’s Cory Booker, New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich and Colorado’s Michael Bennett.
While Democrats are less likely than Republicans to look outside the political arena for candidates, former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in Arizona, has an impressive medical and military background.
Democrats also have California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is making a bid for the U.S. Senate and, as the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, brings a unique story to a campaign. Either of Texas’ Castro twins could be considered a potential national candidate -- Rep. Joaquin Castro or Housing and Urban Development Secretary Juilian Castro.
Florida Rep. Gwen Graham succeeded as a Democrat in a swing state, as did North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. And in what would be a difficult but not unprecedented campaign, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed could assemble a run building on his Southern roots.
Even though Clinton is in a formidable position at this point, the undisputed frontrunner who will have millions of dollars at her command, it's hard to imagine that she will run unopposed. It wouldn't be good for Clinton -- or the Democrats -- if she just coasted to the finish line. Primary campaigns are an important time for candidates to fight through the attack ads and let the electorate grow bored of hearing about their past transgressions. Contentious primary debates sharpen a politician's reflexes and help them hone their message.
In short, Hillary Clinton might not welcome challengers, but she needs them. And she will have them. For at least a handful of Democrats, the FOC -- Fear Of Clinton -- will be less powerful than the lure of the possible.