U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party's annual Fall Gala, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

Cory Booker's campaign begins to take shape as he closes in on 2020 decision

January 04, 2019 - 12:44 pm
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By Rebecca Buck, CNN

(CNN) -- As Sen. Cory Booker nears a public decision on whether he will run for president in 2020, the machinery of his would-be campaign is shifting into a new gear: ready for launch.

Several potential Democratic candidates are expected to announce their candidacy in the early half of this year, and Booker's allies are now working to put the final pieces in place to ensure that, when he gives the signal, a campaign framework would be ready and waiting.

The campaign would likely be based out of Newark, where Booker served as mayor, a source familiar with his thinking tells CNN. The campaign would be centered on the message of unity and love -- themes Booker has made a central part of his political profile.

The New Jersey senator and his chief of staff, Matt Klapper, have narrowed their search for a campaign manager following months of interviews, a source familiar with the discussions told CNN. Among the leading candidates is Addisu Demissie, who oversaw Booker's 2013 Senate bid and most recently steered California Gov. Gavin Newsom's campaign. Demissie was formerly national political director for President Barack Obama's OFA.

Klapper, who has worked with Booker for nearly two decades, dating back to the Newark City Council, is also widely expected to take on a senior role in the would-be campaign.

Meanwhile, Booker's team is also zeroing in on senior staff to lead their early primary state efforts, with discussions ongoing among would-be hires in Iowa and New Hampshire. One person in the mix for a senior Iowa role, multiple sources tell CNN, is Michael Frosolone -- a well-regarded Democratic operative who in 2018 oversaw the party's statehouse campaign operations, helping to flip seven seats.

"If I were a young staff type, operative type, I would find this campaign enormously attractive," said Jerry Crawford, a veteran Iowa Democratic activist who is currently neutral, but has counseled Booker and other would-be candidates. "This one has the look and feel to me of a potential winner."

Although Booker has not yet announced that he will run for president, he has been candid for months about his interest. "Of course the presidency will be something I consider," he told New York Magazine in September. "It would be irresponsible not to."

He said he would chew on the decision over the holidays -- and now that the calendar has turned to 2019, Booker's allies expect an announcement could come within weeks. But Booker's team has already been laying the groundwork for a potential campaign for months.

Their efforts have included extensive outreach in key states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where they have offered assistance with fundraising and staffing to candidates up and down the ballot -- building relationships that could pay dividends as they staff up and pursue endorsements.

Booker "actually cared," said one Iowa campaign operative who worked with the senator and his team during the midterms. "With the others (likely candidates), it seemed like a constant chess game. Everything felt very disingenuous."

Booker's first swing through Iowa in October, following his aggressive questioning of Brett Kavanaugh during the Senate confirmation hearings, helped raise his profile among influential activists and served as a look for would-be supporters and staffers at what a candidate Booker would be like.

"Booker's people don't need to make a pitch (to potential hires), because he's been to Iowa, and he had one of the best first trips in the history of presidential politics," said Crawford.

Their legwork on the ground thus far has set Booker's operation apart from many of the expected top tier of candidates. During Booker's recent visit to New Hampshire, the state Democratic Party Chairman praised him as "the best friend New Hampshire Democrats had in 2018."

"Booker is the farthest along," assessed one Iowa Democratic strategist not aligned with any 2020 campaign.

But other Democrats are quickly ramping up their efforts. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who last week announced an exploratory committee for president, made four big Iowa staff hires in advance of her first visit to the Hawkeye State this weekend.

Jim Demers, a longtime New Hampshire Democratic operative who was among Obama's earliest Granite State supporters, and is now backing Booker, says he believes Booker's team is clear-eyed about the challenges they would face in a crowded Democratic field.

"I certainly get the feeling that they understand that, at least in the beginning, that there are two or three or maybe four candidates polling higher, with higher name recognition," said Demers, "but I think they recognize that this is a marathon, not a sprint."

At this stage, Demers added, "There's nothing that makes me think he wouldn't run."

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