The day after the Minnesota Democrat declared her candidacy, she pushed back against the label, telling Rachel Maddow, “I think [voters] should see me as a progressive because I believe in progress and I have worked towards progress my whole life.”
The senator then touted a litany of "progressive" accomplishments during her years in Washington and at the state level.
The response underscored how even those candidates considered within the party's center-left are reluctant to be seen as somehow ignoring the wishes of the – vocal and influential – liberal base. The label "moderate" is scorned, avoided as a potentially fatal term in a primary campaign stacked with left-wing heavyweights like Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who speak glowingly of big-government policies like the Green New Deal. Most recently, populist firebrand Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Tuesday launched his second straight bid for the Democratic nomination. And progressive champions Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jeff Merkley of Oregon may soon join the 2020 melee.
Self-described centrists are few and far between. What is emerging is a field where candidates who might otherwise brand themselves moderates are pushing a message of unity while still highlighting their "progressive" bona fides -- or, in the case of once-moderate-leaning figures like Beto O'Rourke or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, openly aligning themselves with the party's left flank.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a possible 2020 candidate, pushed back on the "moderate" label during a visit to New Hampshire last week. “I think in many ways I’m more progressive than a lot of these other folks. We’re actually getting it done,” he said.
Last week, former Rep. O’Rourke of Texas, who appears to be leaning toward a presidential bid, called for tearing down existing wall along the U.S.-Mexico border in his home town of El Paso. His push may have been a move to highlight his progressive credentials, following coverage of his voting record in Congress which was more conservative than the average Democrat's.
Asked about O'Rourke's comments, Gillibrand signaled a willingness to consider the idea. The New York senator years ago was known for pro-Second Amendment views and strong opposition to illegal immigration. She has since backed calls to eliminate Immigration and Customs Enforcement, telling "60 Minutes" last year she's "ashamed" of her past immigration stance.
“It’s clear at this early stage that the most energy is around progressive candidates,” said Wayne Lesperance, New England College vice president of academic affairs and a political science professor.
Lesperance has seen many of the candidates in action as they’ve made their way in recent weeks through the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire. He argued that “self-proclaimed moderates have a tougher path to navigate. And those who have taken moderate positions in the past find themselves having to explain those positions -- never a good place to be while running.”
Defending such accomplishments that may not sit well with the increasingly liberal progressive base may be an issue for former Vice President Joe Biden, who’s seriously mulling a White House run. While he’s credited with pushing progressive policies during his years as vice president, his more conservative record in the Senate may not play well on the 2020 campaign trail.
The percentage of Democrats identifying as liberal averaged 51 percent in 2018, according to Gallup polling. That’s up from 50 percent in 2017, marking the first time a majority of Democrats have adopted this term, following gradual increases since the 1990s.
But there may still be an opening for a moderate. The Gallup survey found that 47 percent of Democrats still identify as moderate or conservative. And the survey indicated that a majority of Democrats and independents who lean toward the party would like to see the party move more to the center.
Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg appears to have no issues being labeled a moderate or centrist. The billionaire media mogul who’s contributed millions to fight for gun safety and battling climate change recently took aim at the Green New Deal, "Medicare-for-all" and other progressive proposals during a recent stop in New Hampshire, as he weighs launching a presidential campaign.
The Democrat turned Republican turned independent, who returned to the Democratic Party last year, called for “realistic” proposals that could win support from both Democrats and Republicans.
Count former three-term Rep. John Delaney of Maryland in that camp.
With many of his rivals for the nomination running to the left, Delaney highlights how he’s carving a more moderate path. And he’s taking aim at both the Green New Deal and "Medicare-for-all."
At a speech last week at "Politics and Eggs," a must stop for White House hopefuls campaigning in New Hampshire, Delaney called for a “sense of common purpose and unity” and described himself as a centrist, “which I don’t think is a dirty word.”
Asked by Fox News if many of the other Democratic White House hopefuls are too far to the left, Delaney said: “I think I’m the only one running as a problem solver. And I think there are two ways to seek the presidency. You can try to divide and create some goals that are unrealistic. I think that’s wrong … or you can actually try to unify the country.”
But Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson pushed back against labeling the contenders as progressive or moderate.
Ferguson, who was a senior spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, told Fox News that "voters are far more concerned with who you're going to stand up for and why you're going to do it than they are with any label you're given. They want to connect with a candidate, believe what they are saying and see them as the antidote to Trump.”
“Voters don't care what labels get pushed onto candidates because those labels don't reflect the ideologies at play anymore,” he emphasized.