By Alexander Bolton - 01-11-17 06:00 AM EST
Sen. Cory Booker's (D-N.J.) decision to testify Wednesday against Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), President-elect Donald Trump's pick for attorney general, is the first clear signal that the 2020 maneuvering in the upper chamber has begun.
Booker is taking the unprecedented step of testifying against a fellow senator who has been selected for a Cabinet post.
The 47-year-old is one of a handful of Senate Democrats viewed as promising candidates for the White House in 2020 at a time when few governors are considered top-flight options to challenge Trump in four years.
He is using a strategy that other senators are expected to employ over the next several years to boost their national profile: taking a hard line against the Trump administration.
The others are Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), who has a large loyal following within the liberal grass roots; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), two leading women in the upper chamber; Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), who has made a name for himself on gun control; Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), who represents a pivotal battleground state; and Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), Hillary Clinton's running mate in 2016.
Warren has been the most active of this group in rallying her demoralized party to stand up to the president-elect, focusing her criticism on Sessions and senior Trump adviser Stephen Bannon.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) struck a conciliatory tone right after the election by pledging to look for common ground with Trump, though he has also vowed to fight the incoming administration when necessary. The Democratic base wants the party to take on Trump, whom many liberals view with fear and disdain.
Booker's plan to appear before the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in an attempt to derail Sessions's confirmation is being viewed as a bold move to raise his profile.
"It takes a lot of guts for a United States senator to go in to offer testimony in opposition to one of his colleagues. ... I can't remember this ever happening," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who served as a senior adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) presidential campaign last year.
The testimony will give Booker, who is black, plenty of national media attention and a platform to address civil rights, which Democratic groups have flagged as a major concern with respect to Sessions being attorney general.
"He is someone with a demonstrated leadership in civil rights and he feels very strongly about Sen. Sessions's civil rights record," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and strategist. "We're in a unique moment here where we have a new president who's trying to put a bunch of people into office who are extreme."
"In the face of the extremism, Democrats are going to stand up and say something," he added.
Republicans, however, say Booker is breaching Senate traditions of comity for the sake of his own his presidential ambitions.
"I'm very disappointed that Sen. Booker has chosen to start his 2020 presidential campaign by testifying against Sen. Sessions," Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said in a statement posted on Facebook.
He slammed Booker's testimony as "a disgraceful breach of custom" and questioned his motives by noting that last year the New Jersey legislator said he was "honored" to partner with Sessions on a resolution honoring civil rights activists.
A spokesman for Booker pointed to his boss's statement from earlier this week: "I do not take lightly the decision to testify against a Senate colleague. ... Senator Sessions' decades-long record is concerning in a number of ways, from his opposition to bipartisan criminal justice reform to his views on bipartisan drug policy reform, from his efforts earlier in his career to deny citizens voting rights to his criticism of the Voting Rights Act, from his failure to defend the civil rights of women, minorities, and LGBT Americans to his opposition to common sense, bipartisan immigration reform."
Booker is up for reelection in 2020. New Jersey state officials could not be reached for comment at press time on the question of whether Booker can run for the Senate and the White House simultaneously. A Nov. 14 report on NJ.com suggests that Booker would have to choose one.
While Democrats with possible White House ambitions are figuring out how to best position themselves for 2020, it's a topic they don't want to discuss publicly.
"I'm not sure that anybody running for president in 2020 is going to tell you in January of 2017," Murphy told The Hill.
When asked about her interest in running for president, Klobuchar on Tuesday quickly ducked into the Senate Democratic lunch, telling a reporter, "I've got to eat food."
Later she said, "I'm representing Minnesota in the Senate, and we haven't even sworn in this president."
"I'm not thinking about that at all," said Klobuchar, who recently decided against a run for governor.
Elmendorf and other Democratic strategists say the Senate bench of potential presidential candidates is deep, naming Booker, Warren, Klobuchar, Gillibrand, Murphy, Kaine and Brown.
Kaine, however, has said publicly he won't run in 2020.
Others on the list include Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill.
"There are a lot," Elmendorf said. "I am a big believer that we need younger people, new faces and all of those people as new faces."
The biggest challenge of these senators - with the exception of Warren, who has a prominent national profile - is the need to raise their name identification with voters and donors outside the Beltway.
"Donald Trump is going to give people a great opportunity to build that profile. If you're a Democrat, you have a lot of opportunities to show you can stand up to this guy, which people in the party want to see," Elmendorf added.
A potential complication for senators viewing possible White House runs four years from now is that many of them face reelection in 2018.
Brown, Gillibrand, Klobuchar, McCaskill, Murphy and Warren have to win reelection next year. Brown and McCaskill are running in states that Trump won by healthy margins and may have tough races.
Brown on Tuesday said he is running for a full Senate term in 2018 and is not interested in vying for the Democratic presidential nomination two years later.
"I have no interest. I want to do this," he told The Hill, referring to his Senate job.
McCaskill said she also plans to serve a full six-year term if reelected next year.
"Yeah, I don't think that's a problem," she said. "I don't think that's an issue at all. I'd be more worried about a problem with my family's health than I would be running for president."
Democratic strategists, however, say running for Senate reelection in 2018 could serve as a springboard for senators to White House campaigns in 2020 by giving them the chance to reach out to donors around the country.
"George W. Bush won a very impressive election for governor of Texas in 1998 and that very much helped to launch his presidential campaign in 2000," Devine said.
"Hillary Clinton won reelection in 2006 [to the Senate before the 2008 presidential campaign] and raised a lot of money," he added. "It really depends on how you do in the campaign.
"Can you win a decisive victory that can demonstrate to people outside your state that you have the capacity to win voters from the other party and independents? Can you raise a lot of resources, not just from within your own state but from around the country?"