TOPEKA, Kansas—Pete Buttigieg’s PAC is investing money here — but also in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan and Colorado. And Iowa, per an announcement coming Tuesday. Next month, he’ll campaign in Ohio.
It’s not happenstance. Nor is keeping on Lis Smith, the hard-charging political operative who makes sure he’s constantly in the news. Or keeping up with Obama strategist David Axelrod, who recommended he hire Smith in the first place for the Democratic National Committee chair race that put him on Democrats’ radar last year. Or quietly building relationships over dinners and drinks with big-name Democrats, or courting national reporters, or wooing donors for his PAC, or digging in on political advertising research.
Buttigieg is getting closer to a presidential race. And serious people are telling the South Bend, Indiana mayor, who’d be the first major presidential candidate who’s either openly gay or an Afghanistan veteran or a millennial, to take it seriously.
“I think it’s maybe a sign of the times. I think it’s telling you that things are kind of wide open in a way that hasn’t been true in a long time. I think it shows that there is an interest in the middle of the country,” Buttigieg told me in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. “I think it shows that there’s at least curiosity, if not appetite, for what a newer generation of leaders is going to look like. And I think it reflects the fact that we’re really living in a season for cities and for mayors.”
Here in Kansas, he spoke to the oversold main room at the Topeka Ramada on a Saturday night for the state Democratic Party’s fundraising dinner. Nobody knew who he was when they announced him, Kansas Democratic Chair John Gibson said, but then they started Googling and ate up the tickets, with a few Westboro Baptist Church protesters on the sidewalk outside tweeting about “their sodomite poster boy @PeteButtigieg (running for prez in 2020).”
There’s no winning 2020 Democratic campaign, Buttigieg told the ballroom, that includes the words “back” or “again.”
“There’s no going back. There’s no ‘again’ to be had. Things are going to be different,” Buttigieg explained later, in the podcast. “There was a liberal era in American politics that lasted 30 or 40 years, followed by a conservative era that lasted 30 or 40 years. And now, we’re on the doorstep of a new era.”
Driving back to the Kansas City airport the next morning before dawn, Smith’s back-up phone alarm went off. Buttigieg jumped, the wheel shook in his hand for a second, with a panicked and very present “oh no.” It sounded just like the siren that went off back in Afghanistan.
Yes, Buttigieg has no clear path forward in Indiana politics. Yes, he would be the first openly gay presidential candidate, let alone president. He really did return to South Bend after Harvard and a Rhodes Scholarship. He has a hard name for politics (it’s Maltese, translating to roughly “lord of the poultry.”) Yes, he knows it’s ridiculous to actually think about jumping from a city hall for 101,000 people to the White House, but serious people have been pushing him to run and he is seriously thinking about it.
Nowhere to go?
“I understand where that narrative comes from,” he said. “But again, I think it underestimates the role of surprise in politics.”
At the end of April, after a trip to Ohio to stump for Richard Corday’s governor campaign, he’ll hit the Best Western in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to keynote another state party dinner, but the real work of Buttigieg’s expanding political presence is happening on the PAC’s computers — tracking the traffic on online campaign ads and trying out different messages to see what sticks. Buttigieg listens to Pandora, watches TV on Hulu, keeps up with friends and constituents on Facebook, and he doesn’t understand why Democrats are going to spend the year raising hundreds of millions of dollars to dump on mass-market broadcast TV ads, based off of expensive polls by phone, rather than the real-time hard data that Web sources provide.
“Some of this stuff is new, some of it’s nascent, but how are we not more sophisticated at this as a party?” Buttigieg said. “I think that’s the big thing that’s got to change. And whoever figures it out this cycle will have a lot to contribute in 2020.”
Howard Dean, the 2004 out-of-nowhere presidential candidate and former DNC chair who endorsed Buttigieg for his old job last year on the argument that the party needed younger leadership, said he thinks that same argument could translate in a presidential run — provided the mayor can raise the money.
“The DNC was a more improbable race because the DNC is a very conservative organization. It’s packed with insiders who have been there for a long time. Their feeling is they want to keep things the way they are,” said Dean. “This is a different race. This is a race among voters who hope for something different.”
A lot of Iowa is a lot like South Bend, and Buttigieg could reasonably count on resonating with the kind of voters who put elected him mayor at age 29 by a massive margin, then reelected him in 2015 after he’d come out and spent most of a year on leave to do a National Guard tour in Afghanistan. He could also reasonably expect a rough repeat of the DNC race, being the guy everyone talks about and most think is great, but finishing with everyone else getting the votes.
“He’s got a lot of work to do,” said Axelrod, “but these are odd times in which we have a reality-show host in the White House and serious people look at that and they look around and say, ‘Why not me?’ There’s a real genuine feeling among many in the party for generational change, and I think that the veterans of the wars that my generation has consigned them to have something to say about this.”
Buttigieg knows a lot of strange circumstances have come together right now to make anyone outside of Indiana care about him at all. The chances that this will last are close to zero, and he knows that, said Axelrod, who’s kept in touch — “As I said to Barack Obama in 2006, very rarely in history do people get punished for running too soon. But many get punished for running too late.”
The March for Our Lives in Washington ended on Saturday with a video reminding the demonstrators that 31 million peoples age 19-25 will be able to vote in November 2018. By then, millennials will have surpassed baby boomers as the largest generation of eligible voters. Young people have been lit up in the Trump era, and they’ve been voting heavily for Democrats.
“I don’t think younger leaders will automatically connect well with younger voters, nor do I think you have to be below a certain age to make sense. Look at all the young people who are activated by somebody like Bernie Sanders, right?” said Buttigieg, who spoke at the sister march in South Bend and tweeted “Go ahead, dismiss this generation. I dare you.” “But I do think that people are looking for something new. They’re looking for something fresh and different. And I think that, as a party, we can’t just — first of all, we can’t only trot out people who go to work in Washington every day, as representatives of the party.”
Buttigieg’s second term is up in 2019, and he says he still hasn’t decided about running for reelection. He recently got engaged, and has written about his desire to raise a family. There’s a governor’s race in 2020 too, and GOP Sen. Todd Young is up in 2022. Buttigieg says he’d consider all options except a race for U.S. House.
In Kansas, the Westboro Baptist Church protesters knew to come and protest Buttigieg’s speech because his first stop after checking in to his hotel was to drive 10 minutes across town to look at their church, but more importantly, to look across the street at the Equality House, a rainbow-painted home base for local LGBTQ activism and events — like a mock Olympics in 2014 to protest Russia’s anti-gay laws, with events like “overcoming hurdles.”
Buttigieg walked around, taking pictures on his phone, an uncomfortable tourist. Weird, as a gay man, to look at a giant banner reading “GOD HATES FAGS.” Weird, as a veteran, to see an American flag flown upside down.
“I kind of think it would be weird for most Americans to actually be across the street from something like that. … Just because having it your face like that just reminds you that some people—I don’t know,” Buttigieg trailed off. “I mean, the scary thing is that those people think they’re doing everybody a favor. The scary thing is that those people think they’re with God. And that’s just such a different idea of God than mine.”
Meeting with the Kansas Young Democrats who started by asking him to pronounce his name, he told them, “to me, actual victory is when Republicans start sounding more like Democrats … an emerging national consensus.” They needed to run themselves, he told them, but to be ready for what it meant: “your face is your message. You will be viewed as the candidate of technology and innovation and new ideas, even if you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
At the big dinner, Buttigieg laid out his standard riff to the room of over 500 — the biggest turnout Kansas Democrats had ever had. It’s about freedom: freedom from credit card debt so people can start businesses, freedom from parents worried about their kids’ futures, freedom from government clerks who say which marriages are legal.
But before that, he started with Trump.
“Every day this president is in office, he yanks out a thread of what it means to be an American,” Buttigieg said, “and he will keep pulling one thread at a time, unraveling what it means to be an American, until our republic is just a tangled mess of yarn in his little hands.”
He went on, “Americans already know that lying is wrong. That racism is wrong. That denigrating women is wrong. … They all know about him. They’re waiting to see who’ll be talking about them.”
By 2021, many Democrats assume, this will end with Buttigieg in Washington, one way or another.
“Pete’s going to be a force in the Democratic Party,” said Axelrod. “The question is just whether that’s as a candidate for president, or something else.”