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Cory Booker is on the campaign trail, but not in the way you might think

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent
Yahoo News
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., at a news conference in July. (Photo: Alex Edelman/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The current midterm election cycle has been a long strange trip for New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Since the start of last year, Booker has been traveling to campaign on behalf of more than 25 of his fellow Democrats in 19 states.

“I think this might be, and I’m including presidential election years — Hillary had me all over the place — but this is probably some of the most intense travel of my life,” Booker said in an interview with Yahoo News last week.

Booker is one of the more high-profile Democrats in the Senate and is regularly described as a leading contender for the White House in 2020. Given the presidential speculation, all of Booker’s moves, particularly campaign travel, are scrutinized as potential steps toward a run. However, Booker’s trips so far haven’t hit the obvious spots for a presidential launch.

Other Democrats rumored to have eyes on the race have already visited early primary states. While Booker has been all over the map, he thus far hasn’t visited the three early primary states that would be the most obvious springboards for a presidential bid — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Booker insisted those states aren’t determining his travel plans.

“I’m working on a trip to North Dakota. I’m going down to Texas. … This is not something for me planning for anything beyond November 2018,” Booker said. “For me, this is not about ‘swirl.’ This is about unyielding focus on November the 6th.”

Booker believes the Democrats have a shot at taking back Congress.

“The Democrats have a … better-than-even chance of taking back the House,” Booker said. “I think that we have a better chance to take back the Senate than people gave Donald Trump of winning the presidency, so it is a realistic chance.”

While he’s relatively bullish about the party’s chances, Booker knows the odds are against a full sweep of both houses.

“It’s very uphill, very hard. It’s going to take a tremendous Democratic turnout and that’s one of the reasons I’m running around,” Booker said.

In 2017, Booker spent more than two weeks on the road. This year so far, Booker has been traveling for more than three weeks, and he has plans for additional trips in the months leading up to Election Day in November. And that’s not counting appearances Booker has made in his home state, where he continued his annual tradition of touring all 21 counties and campaigned for candidates including Sen. Bob Menendez, a close ally whose reelection Booker described as his top focus for the cycle.

Based on numbers provided by his office, as of late July, Booker has also raised more than $5 million for federal, state and local candidates during these midterm elections.

While Booker says believes a Democratic takeover of Congress would provide a “check and balance” to Trump, he dodged questions about whether the Democrats’ plan should include launching impeachment proceedings if they win the House and Senate.

Booker described having a counterbalance to Trump as the “No. 1” thing at stake in the midterm elections.

The Democrats have experienced deep divisions since the race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primary. The current election cycle featured several hotly contested primaries, in which more traditional Democrats faced off against candidates from the party’s more progressive wing, some of whom had Sanders’ backing.

When Booker has gone on the campaign trail, he’s backed hopefuls on both sides of this spectrum. In Maryland, he endorsed Sanders-approved gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous. In Virginia, Booker campaigned for Gov. Ralph Northam, who won his race last year after defeating a primary challenger backed by Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Booker with Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous and others in June 2018. (Photo: Cheryl Diaz Meyer for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Booker rejects the notion there’s a rift between progressives and more moderate elements of the Democratic Party as “an inside the Beltway dynamic” and “election time divergence” that has become “the past.”

“We’ve always been a big-tent party,” Booker says.

As examples, Booker cited some of his Democratic Senate colleagues, including two of the party’s more conservative members, Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, and a pair with more progressive reputations, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren. Booker described this spectrum as “healthy for our party.”

Though Booker has stumped for candidates from both wings of the Democratic Party, he has avoided weighing in on the more contentious primaries. Rather than involving himself in these intra-party disputes, Booker has generally backed candidates only after they secured the Democratic nomination.

That means Booker hasn’t been on the winning side of a pair of recent upsets by New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Florida gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillum, a pair of progressives who defeated more mainstream challengers.

“I just have a rule to stay out of primaries as best as I possibly can,” Booker said. “This is not about me trying to pick favorites in the Democratic Party, and, frankly, I think the national party should let a lot of these things play out.”

But Booker said he’s “thrilled” by Gillum’s victory, and he lauded Ocasio-Cortez as “a 28-year-old powerhouse star.”

Booker says there’s a chance for “a 50-state straight Democratic stretch.” Achieving that long-shot goal is part of the reason many of his campaign stops have been in states that are hardly blue strongholds including Mississippi, Arizona, Montana, and Alabama.

So far, Booker has avoided the early primary states that would be most likely to fuel 2020 campaign rumors, but he has made stops in key presidential election battlegrounds like Ohio, Florida and Nevada. Booker also admitted he has invitations to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and he wouldn’t rule out visiting them soon.

“Look, we’ve just started getting a lot of invitations to go to those three states,” Booker said. “I think we’ve got invitations to go to every single state except for Alaska.”

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