Progressives love Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). But they are increasingly realizing the two senators, who are 81 and 73 years old, aren’t going to be their leaders forever.
That’s intensified debates within the left about who might be the best faces to succeed them.
Sanders and Warren could both still run for president in 2024 if President Biden decides not to, but the president has been telling close allies in recent weeks that he will seek another term.
There are a lot of names being thrown around, but here are the top five young progressives people are talking about as the movement’s next standard-bearers.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), 32
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., at an event ahead of a House vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act and the Ensuring Women’s Right to Reproductive Freedom Act at the Capitol in Washington, July 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
Many progressives really, really want Ocasio-Cortez to be president. The question is: does she?
“What I think is required for that is a desire to do it,” said a left-wing Democratic operative, who is close to the congresswoman. “You have to want to be president in a way to become president. If you’re super hesitant you’re just not going to do it.”
True. Unlike other liberal firebrands, the millennial lawmaker has stuck closely to Capitol Hill and her constituents in New York’s 14th Congressional District, as well as to her fan base of some 22 million followers on Instagram and Twitter.
But if she were to make a run for the White House, she’d have a considerable national launching pad.
Ocasio-Cortez is, other than Sanders and Warren, perhaps the most well-known progressive in the U.S. She would likely have Sanders’s endorsement and would potentially enjoy much of the support she helped build across generations and demographics, including among Latinos, a group whose support the Democratic Party continues to lose.
At just 32, she has time. She’s nearly five decades younger than Biden and Sanders, a literal lifetime in politics. As the presidential cycle is expected to kick off after the midterms, there’s likely to be talk about whether she would start making early moves, like heading to battleground states.
But some progressives say don’t get your hopes up just yet.
“It doesn’t sound like she’s even considered that,” the close ally said about a 2024 run.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), 46
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) is seen during a press conference with climate activists on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 to call on President Biden to declare a climate emergency. (Greg Nash)
Khanna has quickly risen to the top of progressives’ preliminary draft lists as an appealing alternative to Sanders, whose presidential campaign he co-chaired and with whom he still enjoys a close relationship.
The California congressman has fine-tuned Sanders’s populist vision to address the nation’s income inequality as voters continue to rank the economy as their top concern. He has made the argument hit home by focusing on innovation in industrialized parts of the country that he believes don’t get enough attention, including in struggling areas of the Midwest and some cities.
“Sanders and Warren both had economic messages that resonated with voters and Ro is building and expanding on that progress,” a source close to Khanna told The Hill on Wednesday.
“Ro has a clear economic vision for the country centered on investing in the industries of the future and making things in America again,” the source said, who is familiar with the congressman’s thinking. “There aren’t enough Democrats making a strong argument on the economy right now.”
The midterms indicate there’s a desire for that kind of messaging. One Democratic Senate candidate, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, has led in polls much of the cycle against Republican challenger Mehmet Oz, a physician, while espousing a populist ideology — though the race appears to be tightening.
“Progressives are excited about him and battleground candidates like John Fetterman are inviting him to campaign with them,” the source close to Khanna said. “That’s a good place to be.”
Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), 46
Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) has broken into the national spotlight as the face of many social justice movements. (Greg Nash)
Bush emerged into the national spotlight after ousting longtime former Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) in 2020. An activist before joining Congress, she has since become the face of many social justice movements, sleeping on the steps of the Capitol to protest the end of an eviction moratorium during the COVID-19 pandemic and joining abortion rights protests in front of the Supreme Court.
Bush has won against unlikely odds. When she beat Clay, she was taking on what she and many on the left viewed as an ineffective establishment wing of Democrats unwilling to challenge the conventional wisdom in Washington.
Now, she seems to be expressing some skepticism about another traditional Democrat: Biden.
“He’s our president right now, he has experience, he has qualifications. I won’t say if he’s best or if he’s not,” Bush said in an interview with ABC’s “The View” this week when asked if Biden is the “best” candidate to run again in 2024. “I’ll just say this, he has the qualifications to run.”
Bush also has a new memoir out called, “The Forerunner,” which would allow her to tour early nominating states like New Hampshire and South Carolina, a blueprint many former presidential candidates have enjoyed before announcing bids.
“Cori Bush would excite the progressive base and bring real world life experiences to the main stage of American politics,” said Cullen Tiernan, a union leader and former Sanders delegate.
The Missouri congresswoman also has a background that stands out among a sea of elected officials. She has spoken openly about being homeless during one point in her life. And as a Black woman in politics, her legislative portfolio often combines her individual experiences with what she views as a more just system of governing the country.
“Her story would be transformative for people to hear and internalize,” Tiernan said. “Missouri deserves more attention and she would campaign with true grit and determination, just as she did to win her seat in Congress.”
One of the few figures who continues to defend the “defund the police” slogan that many Democrats have condemned, Bush’s progressivism puts her squarely in the left lane without compromising on rhetoric for the sake of electability.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), 53
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, meets with supporters as he leaves his event in Philadelphia, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Associated Press)
If Fetterman wants to have a shot at the Democratic presidential nomination, he’d have to win his nail-biter Senate race first.
Polls have tightened around Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor. The Cook Political Report on Tuesday moved its rating to a “toss-up,” indicating the closeness of the race just weeks out from the midterms.
If Fetterman wins, he’ll likely secure a place on progressives’ short list for another Sanders-style populist.
“Personally, I love wearing my Fetterman hoodie whenever I can,” said Tiernan. “Pennsylvania is undoubtedly vital to winning the White House and his folksy charm will serve him and the progressive movement well throughout the heartland of America.”
Fetterman could be compelling for a few reasons: He’s progressive, backing things like legalizing marijuana as a criminal justice reform, but he’s walked a fine line on other issues like fracking, a move that would normally alienate him from climate hawks but has afforded him credibility with other constituencies.
An early Sanders backer who has in turn received the senator’s support, Fetterman is surrounded by Sanders World campaign hands who know how to build grassroots movements, a skill that could come in handy if he decides to aim higher than a potential U.S. Senate seat.
He’d be a first-term senator and a newbie in national politics. But there’s a path for that too. Just a couple of years ago, then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) leveraged her own first term Senate seat into a much-hyped presidential bid and eventual spot as Biden’s vice president.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), 54
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in New York. (Associated Press)
Newsom is not going away. If you turn on CNN or MSNBC, you might catch a glimpse of the California governor going hard against red-state Republicans.
He’s progressive on the social and cultural issues du jour, like sanctuary cities and transgender rights, and is carving out a lane as both a critic and momentum-builder for the Democratic Party.
On a personal level, “he’s easier to deal with,” than some other rising stars in the party, said the progressive operative close to several lawmakers.
Progressives, like many Americans more broadly, don’t know him that well, some concede, but what they do know, they don’t mind — yet.
“I’ve been excited to see him move in a good direction on labor issues, but people want that to be genuine too,” said Tiernan. “Acts done and bills signed not as political calculations, but because he’s the foremost diplomat for Californian values.”
Liberals like that he can inspire some in the party to kick up the rhetoric against the other side, especially around former President Trump’s style of politics, and many think he’s taken the right approach on things like COVID-19, where he implemented strong mask requirements.
The road from governor to president is well established. And for now, he would have the progressive state executive lane to himself. In 2020, a handful of governors like Jay Inslee of Washington state and John Hickenlooper, now a senator from Colorado, competed for the nomination but failed to catch on.
Newsom is taking a more national approach, getting out on television in the final leg of the midterms to acquaint himself with voters.
“As they say, as goes California, so goes the nation,” Tiernan said.