While staring at the near-empty room at Morehouse College, members of Deval Patrick’s presidential campaign team must have thought, “What’s going on here?”
Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor and Bain Capital executive, is one of the last Democrats to jump into the already crowded field for the chance to face off against President Trump in 2020. With two months until the Iowa caucuses, long shots are beginning to drop out, not take off.
Morehouse, a historically black school in Atlanta, Georgia, already hosted Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris. With the backdrop of the Democratic debate happening the same night, Patrick hoped to make a splash.
Instead, two people showed up. That night told us much about the nascent Patrick campaign. Almost no one came to a rally and the rest of the candidates were at a debate for which Patrick obviously had not qualified.
So, what’s Patrick thinking? Why now?
And what’s changed? In a now-deleted Facebook post from December 2018, Patrick said he would not run for president. He wrote, “I’ve been overwhelmed by advice and encouragement from people from all over the country, known and unknown. Humbled, in fact. But knowing that the cruelty of our elections process would ultimately splash back on people whom Diane and I love, but who hadn’t signed up for the journey, was more than I could ask.”
Speculation is that the “cruelty of our elections process” became more palatable to Patrick with the help of his good friend Barack Obama, whose team has been nudging Patrick into the race.
His relationship with Obama dates back to the 1990s, when the two were introduced by a mutual friend and Obama was running for the state Senate in Illinois. Patrick spoke with Obama the day before he announced. According to Patrick, Obama expressed “some concerns” over the state of the Democratic primary race. In an interview with CBS on the day of his announcement, Patrick said, “Right now, we have a really talented, really gifted, and a very hardworking and hard-sacrificing field of Democratic candidates, many of them my personal friends. But we seem to be migrating to, on the one camp, sort of nostalgia: ‘Let’s just get rid, if you will, of the incumbent president, and we can go back to doing what we used to do.’ Or: ‘It’s our way, our big idea, or no way.’ And neither of those, it seems to me, seizes the moment to pull the nation together and bring some humility, that frankly, we have a lot of ideas but no one candidate, no one party has the corner on all the best ideas.”
Fellow late entry Michael Bloomberg, with his $52 billion in net worth, believes he can skip early contests and use his personal fortune to focus beyond Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. He will target delegate-rich Super Tuesday states on March 3 and has already paid for $30 million in ads to “introduce” himself to Democratic primary voters.
Patrick doesn’t have that luxury. Nor is he able to self-fund, as Bloomberg can. Patrick founded the Reason To Believe PAC in 2018. It’s a hybrid PAC (or Carey Committee), which is similar to a super PAC, with one major difference. While super PACs can spend unlimited amounts of money independent of campaigns, hybrid PACs can give limited amounts directly to campaigns or campaign committees while still independently spending unlimited amounts of money. Patrick quickly attracted high-dollar donors. According to OpenSecrets.org, just six people accounted for the $620,000 in donations the PAC received, making up 85% of the total.
That’s not nothing, but it’s going to take a whole lot more to kick-start a presidential campaign this late in the process. Patrick will have to compete with the grassroots fundraising of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Buttigieg. The establishment portion of the Democratic Party already lined up behind Joe Biden as the best choice to beat Trump. Patrick will also have to hire staff, open field offices, and perhaps most vexing of all, offer a distinct reason for why he’s running.
Clearly, there are Democratic Party officials, insiders, and other players who are not thrilled with the current crop of candidates. That Obama leaned on Biden not to run in 2016 but didn’t similarly dissuade Patrick this year, and may have in fact leaned on him to run, is telling. Additionally, when talk radio host Hugh Hewitt suggested former Obama campaign chief strategist and senior White House adviser David Axelrod was Patrick’s adviser, Axelrod corrected Hewitt on Twitter to say he was not, but added, “@DevalPatrick is a friend and past client when I was in the campaign world. I admire him and agree [with] your assessment that he is formidable.”
Patrick didn’t name Biden and Warren, but the comments he made on CBS were clearly directed at them. Patrick already rejected a wealth tax — “I don’t think wealth is the problem. Greed is the problem,” he said — as well as “Medicare for all” and Warren’s idea to cancel student debt.
With a strong liberal presence in the Democratic primary, Patrick will certainly face criticism for his business career. While serving as general counsel for Texaco, he played a significant role in its 2000 merger with Chevron. Patrick was also on the board of directors at ACC Capital Holdings, the parent company of Ameriquest and Argent Mortgage, two sizable lenders of subprime mortgages. During his time on the board, both companies originated $80 billion in subprime mortgages. Additionally, in 2015, Patrick joined the once-vilified Bain Capital, founded in part by Republican Sen. Mitt Romney. Before launching his presidential campaign, he stepped down as Bain’s managing director.
Should Patrick gain any traction, his private sector experience will likely become a target of both Warren and Sanders, two candidates running on a behemoth expansion of the federal government under the guise of a populist-style campaign.
The calculus gets complicated when it comes to Biden, who has been playing up his eight years as Obama’s vice president. That has given him establishment backing and support from black voters, both categories that Patrick could conceivably cut into if he’s viewed as Obamaworld’s candidate of choice. (Patrick is also African American.)
Polling for the Democratic nomination began in December 2018. It took Warren until June to get into double digits. Harris, after a fiery exchange with Biden at the first debate, saw her numbers rise to nearly 15% in the crowded field, but has been dropping ever since. And Buttigieg, despite raising over $50 million, getting a ton of free and positive media coverage, and garnering strong numbers in Iowa, has yet to average double digits in national polling.
All of those factors portend a difficult road ahead for Patrick. Without access to billions of dollars like Bloomberg and with such a late entry into the race, he’s going to have to find some way to make a splash. But it won’t be from the left, as Warren and Sanders have done, though he could cut into their support in New England. And if he seeks to represent Obamaworld by proxy, he’ll have to compete with Biden. Patrick, then, seems a vote-splitter rather than a candidate with his own “lane.” It’s not clear to anyone why he’s on the road at all.
Jay Caruso is managing editor of the Washington Examiner magazine. Naomi Lim is a congressional news reporter at the Washington Examiner.