Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard says she will run for president in 2020, ending months of speculation about whether the 37 year-old would join what is expected to be a crowded field of Democratic primary contenders in the race to unseat President Donald Trump.
Gabbard confirmed that she was running Friday during a CNN interview with Van Jones. The network aired a clip of the interview Friday, and the full segment will run at 2 p.m. today in Hawaii.
“Are you going to run?” Jones asked as members in the studio audience cheered and Gabbard laughed.
“I have decided to run and will be making a formal announcement in the next week,” she said.
Gabbard cited the issue of war and peace as a central reason for her presidential aspirations, in an email later sent out by her campaign.
“Join me in building a movement for peace at home and abroad that will fulfill the promise of America for freedom, justice, equality, and opportunity for all,” Gabbard wrote in the email that solicited campaign donations.
Rania Batrice, who was a deputy campaign manager for Bernie Sanders, will be Gabbard’s campaign manager, CNN reports.
This is the first time since Patsy Mink ran a limited campaign for the presidency in 1972 that any major Democratic candidate representing Hawaii has made a bid for the Oval office. While former President Barack Obama was born and raised in Hawaii, he never held office locally.
“We’re proud to see a candidate from Hawaii poised to enter the presidential race and to contribute to the discourse on important issues in our country,” Keali‘i Lopez, chairwoman of the Hawaii Democratic Party, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser following the announcement. She said Gabbard’s entrance into the race helps contribute to the diversity of the Democratic Party.
Overall, however, the local reaction to Gabbard’s announcement was rather muted, and other members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation did not respond to requests to comment. That could be, in part, because Gabbard’s announcement comes at a rather awkward time locally.
Earlier this week Gabbard accused U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono, Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein of religious bigotry in their questioning of judicial nominees in an opinion piece published by The Hill. The criticism, which mirrored that coming from right-leaning groups, stunned local political observers, particularly because it targeted Hirono, a fellow Democrat and popular member of Hawaii’s congressional delegation.
Bart Dame, a national committeeman for the Hawaii Democratic Party, declined to comment on Gabbard’s announcement other than to say that he thought her criticism of Hirono could hurt her politically.
“Taking on the heroic Mazie in this way, so crudely. Wow. What the heck?” said Dame. “That’s going to hurt her. That’s really going to hurt her — not just in Hawaii, but nationwide.”
Gabbard has weathered a number of political controversies, managing often to come out on top. For instance, her decision to meet with President Donald Trump shortly after his election triggered a cascade of criticism from Democrats still raw from a blistering campaign and shocking upset. But as she embarks on a presidential run, the level of scrutiny she will be subjected to is expected to increase exponentially, as it does for any serious presidential contender.
Gabbard was a virtual unknown when she ran for the U.S. House of Representatives six years ago, even though she had served in the state Legislature and the Honolulu City Council. But she won her race in a landslide and has gone on to be one of Hawaii’s most popular politicians while attracting significant attention from the national media.
Serving two tours in the Middle East as part of the Army National Guard has boosted her attractiveness as a political figure and imparted her with a level of gravitas that counters her young age. Her maverick style of politics and ability to at times please both progressives and Republicans has brought her added attention. During the 2016 presidential race, Gabbard resigned from the Democratic National Committee to support Bernie Sanders’ bid for president, bolstering her reputation as someone who wasn’t afraid to go up against the party establishment.
However, Gabbard could have a hard time winning over major players in the Democratic Party given her past skirmishes. The media also has been taking a closer look at her affiliations with Indian nationalist groups, as well as her background with a Hindu religious group headed by a local leader named Chris Butler — both of which could prove to be political liabilities.
A recent investigation by the online news site The Intercept found that dozens of Gabbard’s donors from 2011 to 2018 have “either expressed strong sympathy with or have ties to the Sangh Parivar — a network of religious, political, paramilitary, and student groups that subscribe to the Hindu supremacist, exclusionary ideology known as Hindutva.”
A detailed story in The New Yorker over a year ago also amplified questions about the operations of Butler’s group, called the Science of Identity Foundation.
In the past Gabbard has often dodged questions on these topics, but it’s not clear that she will be able to continue to do so in a presidential campaign.
“It’s certainly going to be an issue, and I think it will matter,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii, in an interview earlier this week. “Because if you are running for president and you are trying to get the nomination, you have to be able to credibly claim that you can win the presidency. And the Chris Butler association … like I said, it might not be fair to bring it up, but it will be brought up. That will raise questions in Democrats’ minds about whether or not Tulsi Gabbard would be capable of going all the way. It is the sort of thing that makes voters uncomfortable. It’s the sort of thing that makes donors and party activists less likely to support you because they don’t think you can win.
“I think that’s going be tough for her to overcome. I don’t think she’s really faced intense scrutiny like that from the national media.”
The road ahead
Todd Belt, a professor and director of the Political Management Program at George Washington University, said Gabbard’s announcement Friday thrusts her into the 2020 pre-primary scramble for money, staff, media exposure and name recognition.
“Announcing early allows her to try to get a lot of really good staff,” but Belt said U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., already has recruited a number of the most talented Iowa caucus staffers who participated in the 2016 campaigns of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“So, it’s going to be a little bit of an uphill battle for her there,” he said.
Gabbard is well connected with the political donor network that financed the Sanders campaign in 2016, Belt said, but that network is largely made up of small donors. The 2020 Democratic primary field is expected to be quite crowded, and many of those former Sanders donors could peel off to support other candidates, he said.
As for her public profile, Gabbard is well known among progressive Democrats, but in recent months she has been overshadowed by the stir caused by other progressive players such as newly elected U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and by Warren’s earlier announcement for president, he said.
Belt said many political scientists agree the nation is overdue for a female president, and also a woman of color. If Gabbard can survive the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, 2020, as well as the New Hampshire primary eight days later, her chances of success might improve.
To navigate Iowa, Gabbard will need a strong grassroots organization that can drive Democratic voters to the caucuses. In New Hampshire the task will be to campaign tirelessly in dozens of small venues to win over voters who will participate in the primary, he said. Gabbard has attended events in both states already.
If she has the stamina to survive those early contests, the media will focus on the top three candidates who emerge, “and that’s going to lead to a lot more campaign contributions, it’s going to lead to a lot more volunteers, it’s going to lead to a lot more exposure.”
Gabbard would need “incredible momentum” heading into the South Carolina and “Super Tuesday” primaries to be successful, Belt said.
“The ‘Resistance,’ which is the base of the Democratic Party, which is the primary electorate — that’s the people most likely to turn out in these winter months in these early primaries — the majority is going to be women and women of color,” Belt said. “The electorate is going to reward someone who looks like the majority of the electorate, and the primary electorate is going to be majority women and, to a large extent, nonwhite for the Democrats.”