DES MOINES — Just hours after casting a vote in one of the most contentious Supreme Court confirmation battles in history, Cory Booker stepped on stage in a packed Iowa conference hall and unofficially launched his 2020 campaign.
Speaking before 1,500 energized Democrats at the party’s premier Fall Gala event, the New Jersey senator acknowledged their likely feelings of defeat and anger after the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh earlier that day. He then delved into race struggles, poverty, his own personal political defeats and finding faith, despite it all.
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If other top-tier potential contenders weren’t rethinking their decision to avoid Iowa this far in advance of 2020, they might be now.
Booker had the room silently mesmerized at some points and won roaring standing ovations at others.
“How long will it take? I’m going to tell you, not long now,” Booker roared, quoting from Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary 1965 speech in Montgomery, Ala. “Because it’s not long until November!”
Then to an energized crowd, on its feet and responding in unison to his question: How long? “NOT LONG.”
This was a prized speaking slot for Booker, putting him in front of Iowa’s political luminaries, including ex-governor and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, every 2018 statewide nominee, and scores of the party’s most active members.
It was at this event in 2007, then called the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, where another 40-something, African-American senator — Barack Obama — delivered soaring remarks, leading some to declare that Obama won the 2008 Iowa caucuses that very night.
“You don’t give a speech like that unless you’re running for president,” Scott Brennan, Iowa Democratic National Committee member and a former state party chairman, said afterward.
Booker’s appearance couldn’t come at a better time for him politically, just as he comes off one of the most prominent stretches of his political career. Before a nation captivated by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, the New Jersey Democrat played an outsized role as agitator: releasing key documents, walking out at one point, and seizing the spotlight at another by saying he was willing to risk expulsion from the chamber in what he called his “‘I am Spartacus’ moment.”
Booker’s hard-charging performance in the Senate Judiciary Committee commanded the attention of Iowa Democrats before he even arrived in Des Moines.
“He’s been a face of the resistance,” Brennan said. “We Iowans are stuck with Chuck Grassley and have been since the beginning of time. It was nice to see somebody who wanted to get to the truth.”
Still, it will take far more than one speech for Iowans, who are more than accustomed to seeing presidential prospects up close, to settle on any one candidate just now.
“He was pretty good,” Tim Gannon, Democratic candidate for state secretary of agriculture, shrugged flatly after Booker’s speech. Noting he’d reserve judgment until he sees all the other possible 2020 contenders, he added: “I’m from Iowa.”
“He can’t just fly in and fly out of Des Moines,” said Patty Judge, a former Iowa lieutenant governor and secretary of agriculture. “Iowans expect candidates to meet people face to face — and multiple times.”
Booker seems to understand as much. He has in-state events planned for the next several days, including a series of stops that will help Iowa Democrats launch a major push for early voting, which begins on Monday.
Booker’s appearance at the marquee Iowa fundraising event comes as other top-tier 2020 potentials have shied away from showing up to this first presidential state, fearing they’d be accused of taking their eye off the critical midterm elections.
Even if Booker hasn’t officially announced a presidential run, he’s considered among the top candidates with such aspirations. He’s visited 15 different states to support other candidates since 2017 and is planning an event in South Carolina later this month. And the first-term senator has been careful not to give the impression his eye is fixed beyond his home state: He is holding 20 events this year supporting New Jersey candidates.
Asked whether he is running in 2020, Booker on Saturday said he is thinking only about the midterm elections at the moment.
Still, President Donald Trump seems to view him as a potential rival: Booker was among the potential 2020 challengers Trump specifically criticized at a rally in Kansas on Saturday night, and the president singled him out last week at a news conference, calling Booker “a horrible mayor” in reference to his prior service as the mayor of Newark.
“I will never let him pull me so low as to hate him,” Booker, talking to reporters after the event, said of Trump. “I’m going to continue to be a voice in this country for the love, for bringing the nation together, not driving the nation apart.”
In Iowa, Booker proved to be a top draw for the state party — the gala was sold out, with 1,500 seats filled. That’s compared with two years ago, when 600 people attended, Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price said.
“People will be fired up and that will all be on display,” Price told POLITICO. Price described soaring Democratic energy across the state, with absentee ballots coming back almost 5-to-1 in the party’s favor, then pointing to the doubling in size of the party’s premier event on Saturday, saying it will serve only to further energize Democrats. “They’ll see how far our party has come.”
One day before Booker’s anticipated appearance, California Sen. Kamala Harris — another Democratic 2020 prospect who has yet to make her first Iowa trip — made calls within the state giving word that she would appear here after all, likely sometime during the week before the November election.
Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio was touring the state over the past couple of days. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who also serves as Democratic Governors Association chair, will headline an event here next week. Later this month, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will campaign with Democratic congressional candidate J.D. Scholten. That’s all on top of Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, who’s already visited each of the early state’s 99 counties, and billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who has been investing heavily in Iowa voter registration and GOTV efforts.
Iowans have already had a taste of Booker from his multiple trips to the state as a Hillary Clinton surrogate in 2016. On Saturday, he made clear he also had roots here, detailing family ties to Buxton, an old mining community in rural Iowa. During his remarks, Booker introduced his mother, his 99-year-old great aunt and what he described as “50 cousins” from Iowa, after weaving through a personal narrative that traced back to his relatives’ trek to the state.
He recounted what his mother told him before he was sworn in as a U.S. senator.
“Boy, don’t you forget where you came from,” Booker said his mother told him as he approached then-Vice President Joe Biden to be sworn in. “The title doesn’t make the man, the man has got to make the title.”
Republicans here were prepped for Booker’s run through the state, arguing that his visit served to reinvigorate their party, since he’s among the Democrats the GOP views as an obstacle to Trump’s agenda. On Saturday, the GOP party chair trolled Booker, derisively calling him “Senator ‘Spartacus.’”
“Cory Booker’s warm welcome in Des Moines tonight tells Iowans all they need to know about what these Democrats will do if elected – and that’s an approach that puts obstruction, political stunts, and resistance over results and promises kept,” Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said in a statement. “Senator ‘Spartacus’ thinks his vapid stunts in New Jersey and DC have earned him front runner status for 2020, but voters across Iowa will grow tired of his premeditated outrage.”