Seth Moulton is audacious, you have to give him that. In his first political campaign, barely four years ago, he took on and defeated an incumbent Democratic congressman. Then he became the public face of resistance to his party’s House leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Now, barring a surprise change of heart, it appears that sometime this Spring the 40-year-old Marine from Marblehead with three Harvard degrees will declare himself a candidate for President of the United States.
This is for real, I am assured by people familiar with Moulton’s political operation. Despite the ever-present caveat that no final decision has been made, they acknowledge that plans have been moving forward, with the expectation of a late-April or early-May announcement.
Most Massachusetts political insiders roll their eyes at the idea. They scoff at his ego and self-importance, and assume that any Presidential run will be short-lived, forgettable, and politically suicidal.
There are plenty of reasons to back that thinking.
But as Janis Joplin sang nearly a decade before Moulton was born, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
Why shouldn’t Moulton run? His future isn’t in the U.S. House of Representatives; he wants to lead something, not be one of a crowd.
If his Presidential campaign fizzles, well, nobody really expects otherwise, so he won’t lose any stature. He’ll still be a young, well-connected figure with some national following and plenty of options.
If he does break through the crowded field, even just enough to hit double-digits or a top-four finish in a couple of early states, Moulton becomes a hot political property, likely to land a major role in the next Democratic administration.
And who knows what lightning might strike?
Campaign Taking Shape
Moulton laid low for a while after his battle with Pelosi. A Vanity Fair article last month and Brookings Institute keynote speech began his public re-emergence. That surged Thursday, with an Atlantic report that he will soon visit early voting states—South Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada—as he decides whether to enter the Presidential race.
The structure of a national campaign has been in the making all along, primarily via his Serve America political action committee (PAC).
Moulton raised two million dollars through that PAC just last year—in addition to his own campaign account, and a joint fundraising committee that raised money for his endorsed candidates.
Serve America PAC now has a staff of about a dozen, most of whom will likely form the core of a Presidential campaign staff. That includes Michelle Kleppe, a Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign veteran, who will return from maternity leave in time to be a key advisor; and Matthew Corridoni, recently shifted from Moulton’s congressional office, who is expected to be national press secretary.
Other key players will soon be brought on board to round out the team. The search for a campaign manager is being headed up, from what I’ve heard, by potential First Lady Elizabeth Moulton—an executive search consultant for SpencerStuart in Boston.
Moulton’s big-dollar donor base should be less cannibalized than those of other Presidential candidates—he never got much love from the usual Democratic givers anyway. Instead, he built a network of political outsiders, including many from business and military connections, who have no split loyalties to worry about.
He should also get some fundraising help from the officeholders who he helped recruit and elect. That, plus a small but growing small-donor list, should give Moulton enough to run a respectable operation in the early-voting states—at least, up until the point when he’ll need serious TV ad money.
Presumably, that will come if he breaks through and shows movement in polls.
That breakthrough depends partly on the sheer force of Moulton’s presumed leadership qualities. To be fair, those qualities have served him remarkably well so far in life.
But it also relies on a calculation that the Democratic Party that shows up for Presidential primaries, isn’t the same party as the one dominating conversations on television and social media.
You might have heard that the party has lurched sharply to the left—somewhere between radical progressivism and outright socialism, according to some.
There is some truth to that. But it’s not the whole truth.
An awful lot of rank-and-file Democratic primary voters, even those who hold quite liberal views, are turned off by what they see as partisan squabbling, Washington elitism, and ideological extremism.
Despite the high-profile examples from a handful of very blue congressional districts, much of the success in the 2018 midterm Democratic primaries went to candidates positioned as moderate, pragmatic, and outside the Washington political establishment. That included quite a few endorsed by Moulton.
He won’t be the only one courting those voters. Pete Buttigieg, John Hickenlooper, and presumably Beto O’Rourke will be among those pitching a similar theme.
But Moulton does have some advantages—starting with the anti-establishment credibility that comes from having taken on that fight against Democratic House leadership.
Many in the vocal part of the party was shocked and offended by Moulton’s attempt to tear down the House leadership team of Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Jim Clyburn. But Democrats overall were split on whether Pelosi should become Speaker again.
His district’s immediate proximity to the bulk of New Hampshire voters obviously helps. He might face resentments there for his backing of Maura Sullivan last year, seen as a carpetbagger in her losing bid for an open congressional seat. But again, bucking the party establishment is very on-brand for Moulton.
And finally, don’t underestimate the value of having military veterans in your corner during the early, retail-politics phase of the Presidential nominating process, willing to vouch for your service and character at campaign events and house parties. Just ask the primary opponents of John McCain and John Kerry about that.
None of which is to say that odds favor Moulton rising beyond asterisk level in Presidential polls. But it’s possible to see—with a little imagination—how he could become at least a player.
And what does he have to lose?