CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard arrived to a recent Democratic cattle call here to a hero’s welcome, with supporters and staff blowing conch shells and waving signs heralding her arrival at the convention hall.
The reception for her presidential bid has been less warm in her home state of Hawaii. There, Kai Kahele, a 45-year-old state senator and airline pilot, is promising a bare-knuckle fight should Gabbard return to run for re-election.
“She's got a fucking tiger on her tail, and she's gonna be in trouble,” Kahele told VICE News, on the phone from his home on the Big Island. “It's a different Hawaii than what she's used to and I'm a completely different candidate than anything she's ever faced.”
A funny thing is happening to the Democratic presidential aspirants barnstorming Iowa and New Hampshire and pontificating in glistening convention centers in California and New York: Voters back home are starting to get suspicious and rival politicians see an opportunity.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Gabbard and Reps. Seth Moulton (Mass.), Tim Ryan (Ohio) and Eric Swalwell (Calif.). A wave of national stardom is crashing down on the shores of reality, at least in the early going, where these presidential candidates are finding a catalogue of cable news hits and political profiles highlighting their potential are not translating to real support on the ground. All four are polling at 1% or less nationally for the Democratic presidential nomination, leaving candidates and constituents wondering why they bother running at all.
House members have to run for re-election every two years. So more than any other candidates in the presidential primary, Gabbard, Moulton, Ryan and Swalwell are balancing national aspirations with local job security. They have never faced legitimate opponents from within their own parties, but their long-shot bids for the presidency have caused rivals to see vulnerability.
Threatened at home
Kahele said Gabbard’s run is the equivalent of trying to surf a 40-foot wave in Waimea Bay without dying. Basically, he thinks there’s not much chance she survives — and he’s betting voters see the same thing. Already, he’s raised more than $250,000, but he’s going to have to raise much more to topple a prolific fundraiser like Gabbard. It may help that three sitting governors have endorsed his campaign, which he says is a message to Gabbard: “Good luck running for president, but don't come back to Hawaii.”
“If she did not run for president, I would not have announced I was running against her”
“If she did not run for president, I would not have announced I was running against her,” Kahele said. “But I knew that when she did that, that would be a game changer because it would be impossible for her to fight fires nationally and locally. I knew that it would completely take her out of the district for at least a year.”
The two have a similar profile: She served as a medic in Iraq, he as a pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan. She’s in the Army National Guard, he’s in the Air National Guard. Her father is a state senator, as was his.
But he thinks he can exploit her declining local popularity locally after some domestic and foreign policy stances Gabbard has taken recently — plus lingering whispers about her upbringing, culminating in recent a New York Magazine story about her ties to, as Kahele put it, “this super weirded-out cult.”
Gabbard’s campaign declined to make her available for an interview, but when CNN asked whether she plans to run for her House seat again if the presidential bid doesn’t work out, she deflected. Hawaii has a resign-to-run law, so Gabbard can’t run for both offices at once, but Hawaii allows candidates until June 2020 to file for reelection and the primary isn’t until August of that year, so she has plenty of time.
In the Bay Area, Swalwell is also facing a challenge to his seat. California allows candidates to run for two offices at once, but he has promised he won’t do that and will make a decision by the state’s December filing deadline. Still, he said potential opponents in his district should cut him some slack.
“It’s not like I joined a traveling bowling league. Like, I’m running for president,” he told VICE News after delivering a speech at the California Democratic Party Convention in San Francisco. “They should run. I’m running for president. If I’m still in [the race] come December, even though people can file for both, I’m not going to do that.”
A state senator announced for the seat, but then had second thoughts. But another potential challenger awaits for the March primary. Aisha Wahab became the first Afghani-American woman elected to any office in the country when she took a seat on the Hayward, Calif., City Council. Now she has an eye on trailblazing nationally.
Talking over coffee in San Francisco recently, Wahab seemed less certain than Kahele that she would take on Swalwell if he returns from the presidential campaign trail. But she said she didn’t want to wait for Swalwell to decide to elevate the progressive issues she wants to pursue, including housing, universal health care and jobs.
She said endorsements have been slow coming because many people in the district also think Swalwell’s run will peter out, and because Swalwell himself has said he would run for his seat again if he drops out of the national race. But she wanted to set a marker either way.
“I think that people are just a little bit reluctant right now. They also say, ‘You know, we need to see what the presidential campaign is going to look like,’” Wahab said. “A lot of people have told me, ‘Slow down, slow your roll.’ … And I will say, the way I've said it to everybody: ‘We can't wait, we cannot wait for somebody to make a decision.’”
“Anyone who doesn’t make the debates should get out”
Swalwell said the test of whether his campaign will continue is whether he qualifies for the Democratic debates.
“Anyone who doesn’t make the debates should get out,” he said.
That was not the calculation Moulton made. He failed to quality for the first debate in Miami later this month, but he'll continue his presidential campaign. Several politicians have expressed interest in the race, and ex-Rep. John Tierney, whom Moulton bested in a primary to win the seat in 2014 may return to avenge his loss. Yet at the moment, even though Moulton made enemies by trying to unseat Pelosi as Speaker, he faces no serious opposition.
“Seth has said he'll run for his House seat if he's not the Democratic nominee for president, and so far no legitimate challenger has thrown their hat in to run against him,” said his spokesman, Matt Corridoni.
The same goes for Ryan, who has so far avoided a challenger altogether. During a recent interview in Iowa, he said he thinks that is because his campaign has focused on helping his home state of Ohio, and more specifically, his district, which has been hit by manufacturing job losses.
“We may get somebody, but nobody yet,” he said. “They like seeing me out there, right, so in a primary, it's kind of like he's our guy and he's trying to fix the problem here. So it's been fine.
One House member avoided a challenger the old-fashioned way: resigning from his seat entirely. Ex-Rep. John Delaney said he wanted to run full-time, so he owed it to his constituents to step down.
“I think it's hard to do your job in the Congress and run for president at the same time,” he said. “I also thought it was kind of the honest and honorable thing to do to tell my constituents that their member of Congress who is supposed to be representing them every day is actually going to be running for president and they should have someone who's doing it as a full-time job.”
The numbers bear that out: Swalwell has missed more than 38% of his House votes this year, by far the most absent House member running for president, according to a tally kept by ProPublica. Ryan has missed more than 26%, Gabbard missed more than 15%, and Moulton missed just about 6%.
Cover: Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii and 2020 presidential candidate, speaks during an Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S., on Sunday, June 9, 2019. (Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)