As Pete Buttigieg waited in line at Washington airport for coffee, a selfie crowd gathered around him.
One woman stated that she wouldn’t stop until she was certain it was him. “It’s you,” replied the Transportation secretary.
A man of older age explained to his wife that “That’s Pete BOOTGUG,” but he had mispronounced the accent and pronunciation.
“He’s President’s …” he said, unable to give his job title.
Yet, Buttigieg, whose only experience in politics was as South Bend’s mayor, in Indiana, has been the most sought-after surrogate for Democratic candidates in midterms. This is according to people who are familiar with the requests. According to sources, he is in high demand and getting more requests than Vice-President Kamala Harris. However, he still gets fewer requests than President Joe Biden as Democrats try to defend their congressional majority and win governor’s seats in November.
A relatively low-ranking Cabinet Secretary must choose between Democratic candidates to chase him down and those who are inviting him to the White House and Democratic National Committee. This is a new practice. There’s no precedent for the Iowa caucus winner to become Transportation secretary and prove more agile than Vice President Biden and Biden.
Biden is widely expected to succeed Harris and Buttigieg – regardless of whether an open race emerges in 2024 or 2028. For Democrats looking ahead, Buttigieg’s preference on the trail for Harris may be an indicator of the future direction of the party.
A dozen candidates and operatives said they believe Buttigieg is gaining from the need for fresh faces. Biden’s approval ratings have been steadily rising since the summer. Democrats feel that Harris is also being hurt by this. Harris has had her political struggles, even though the administration’s agenda remains popular.
One operative who was involved in multiple House races said that “it’s the association of being a Democrat – but not with Biden and Harris.” This is why campaigns are gravitating towards Buttigieg. He’s extremely popular in the context of what people can choose from.
It’s more than popularity. Some campaign operatives admitted that they were reluctant to invite Harris because of the possibility of being scrutinized by Republicans. This would mean Buttigieg doesn’t have to worry about her every word.
Some also point out the basic issues of tight campaign budgets during the last stretch of the midterms. The vice president has a large security footprint, so when she travels to politics, some of her Secret Service and local protection costs have to be covered through the campaigns that bring her in. Even a few hours spent on the ground can cost tens or thousands of dollars, and cause traffic and other delays.
Buttigieg can travel on a commercial flight with only a member from the Protective Services Division. Harris can only meet people who have been tested for Covid-19 by the Secret Service, while Buttigieg can travel with just one member of the Protective Services Division.
According to one source familiar with Buttigieg’s plans, White House political aides “recognize his dexterity” and want to send him to places where Democrats aren’t usually campaign.
This contrasts with the vice president’s team which has tried to rebuild her standing by keeping away from tight races. They have focused largely on Black voters, where she remains very popular. Also, on women, as she speaks about abortion rights, arguing she can have a large indirect influence.
Assistants to a West Coast House Democrat were discussing who would be their final request in a highly competitive race. The President? The vice president? The first lady?
“A senior campaign staffer said, “Throwing in two cents by our finance director – our San Francisco people expressed that they don’t care about POTUS and VPOTUS or even the first lady.” One of the aides said, “They just really like Secretary Pete.”
One adviser to Biden highlighted the intentional deployment of Cabinet members over the last month in races where they believe they will matter most. He urged them to appear in their capacities to avoid violating Hatch Act provisions that prohibit government work from being mixed with campaigning. Buttigieg’s secretaries have not been much in the news: Marcia Fudge, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, Tom Vilsack, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, and Tom Vilsack are just a few. Veteran Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough will be on the trail for a few events. He is not a very prominent political presence.
Buttigieg is the only candidate who appears in early presidential polls. He was the one invited to speak at the retreat in Napa Valley for top donors, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August. He is the one who has headlined events for Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, considered the most endangered Democrat in Congress, as well for Nan Whaley (Democratic nominee for Ohio governor).
New Hampshire: A return with high hopes
According to state party officials, Buttigieg was a close second in the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic primaries. He was the top choice for the headline of their big fall fundraising dinner. This was even before the poll in late July showed him tied with Biden, but narrowly beating Harris by 11 percentage points.
Surprised by some New Hampshire residents, the White House’s political office approved the invitation shortly thereafter. All tickets were sold out.
State Rep. Matt Wilhelm proudly tweeted the morning before the New Hampshire speech a photo of a BOOT EDGE EDG mug that he had saved from two years ago when he had endorsed and volunteered for his presidential campaign.
Wilhelm stated, “When the party asked me, ‘Who do you want as a surrogate?” I supported Pete because yes, I want him back here. But I also think that he’s a good messenger to get people excited for the midterms.” Rep. Annie Kuster who endorsed him in 2020, had him headline a fundraiser this year for her campaign.
As Buttigieg entered the room, the synth-horn notes from “High Hopes,” his campaign anthem, were played. In two years, he hadn’t given a major political speech. While he was reciting Biden’s accomplishments, like placing Ketanji Brown Jackson on Supreme Court and signing bipartisan legislation to provide health care for veterans who have been exposed to toxic burn pits, he also had some moments of the rusty moment as he tried out new lines.
He said, “Most Americans don’t need culture wars whenever there’s a gay Muppet on TV – we need funding for public schools.”
Buttigieg’s centerpiece was the highlight. It was intended to provoke knowing smirks and laughs but not laughter, and it was a perfect way to get the standing ovation that he received.
“Teddy Roosevelt had a square deal. FDR had the New Deal. So I’m going say this body of defining accomplishments, this incredibly productive calendar year amounts to such an enormous deal that we should just call it The Big Deal,” Buttigieg stated, challenging Republicans’ “big lie”, that Trump stole the 2020 election.
“And if you would like to add an adjective to the above, please feel free to do so in the tradition of our President.”
He concluded with a passage that could be used to make a political convention speech. It goes beyond Biden and the infrastructure law, or any other Trump references. It focuses on the aspirational phrase about building a democratic republic that is truly representative, fully inclusive, multiracial, and democratic like the one that has been here in the USA for 200 years.
After the last standing ovation for Buttigieg, Sen. Maggie Hassan stated that “This is someone who believes in democracy and in delivering outcomes.” We have seen him deliver results. His pragmatic approach means something to people here.” Hassan is up for competitive reelection, having won her first term by 1,017 votes. Buttigieg also headlined a Washington fundraiser earlier in the summer.
“You have to be in Joe Biden’s house.”
Harris was again the featured speaker at Texas Democrats’ big Austin dinner two weeks later on a Saturday night. Except for the nominee to state railroad commissioner, every statewide Democratic candidate was absent. Although tickets were easy to obtain, the state chair stated that it was their biggest-ever grossing event. Some also noted that many state legislators flew in from other parts to attend the event.
Harris’ stump speeches are more grounded and direct than her own.
Her Austin speech was rooted in stories from her home turf about Lyndon Johnson and former Rep. Barbara Jordan. This led to a lively call and response. She recited a line she had used many times, paraphrasing Coretta Scott King’s words: “The struggle for justice is a never-ending process. Freedom is not something you can win; it’s something you have to earn and it’s something you can win in every generation.
Harris can’t move far from the White House, even though her team at the White House Political Office allows her to pick her spots and create her speeches. She must be subordinated to the President when she speaks up about Biden’s record. Except for occasional moments, she can’t add her spin to it. She said that two days after Biden released his marijuana policy changes, which were not made with her participation, “Nobody should be sent to jail for smoking marijuana.”
“There is a Joe Biden house. It has a lot of rooms. As vice president, you have the option to choose which room you want to sit in. “But you have to be in Joe Biden’s house,” Harris’s adviser stated recently. He was trying to find a metaphor that would describe the dynamic within the administration.
This reality, along with the differences in political landscapes between the two states, helps to explain the differing responses Buttigieg received in New Hampshire and Texas.
One attendee at the Austin event said, “The administration doesn’t have a good branding in Texas – and that’s Joe Biden or Kamala Harris.”
Buttigieg, on the other hand, has many benefits from being part of the administration – without Harris’s burdens. Politicians love to be able to see him since he is responsible for spending federal funds in his official capacity. Nearly all the speakers at the New Hampshire dinner joked about how they hoped he would return with another large check to fund an infrastructure project.
House Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn, a major Biden supporter, and promoter of Harris spent Wednesday with Secretary Harris in South Carolina. He went to numerous events with him.
He said that he was eager for Harris to appear at the South Carolina Democratic Party Dinner in June and pointed out that Harris was just weeks ago in the crucial early primary state.
Clyburn stated that bringing her in is expensive and beyond the means of most people. He did not mention Air Force 2. It was a huge problem when we brought her to South Carolina. Yours truly had no choice but to make sure the party could afford it.
The speech was received warmly by a large crowd in Columbia. Clyburn referred to the money he had taken from his campaign account as “money well spent.”
Ducking presidential talk
Buttigieg is self-aware enough to know that any hint of presidential thinking will almost certainly leak and confident enough to believe that he doesn’t have to begin laying the foundation for a campaign right away.
Buttigieg’s circle and the secretary try to minimize any speculation about the presidential election and any hint of tension between potential future rivals. Harris’ circle claims that they don’t think much about Harris the Transportation secretary but that when they do they often feel that he is getting a pass on moves that would be considered machinations for her.
One Buttigieg advisor stated that “The Future is Joe Biden” and that he will run for reelection in 2024.
A woman looked at her husband as he tried to explain the identity of Buttigieg after he mispronounced her name in the airport coffee line.
She said, “I wouldn’t have known him if I bought his coffee.”
Buttigieg has a problem. A stand selling Harris bobbleheads was also nearby, as well as a T-shirt featuring her face.