Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton may not be an official presidential candidate just yet, but he’s playing the part.
He’ll spend much of next week’s congressional recess in key presidential primary states, starting in New Hampshire on Saturday and then moving on to South Carolina and Iowa during the week.
He says his goal is to introduce Democratic activists, operatives and voters to the real Seth Moulton, not just the one they’ve read about.
"I hope they get to know me as a person, as an individual, not just a politician,” Moulton said in an interview with WBUR in the sleek, glass-enclosed coworking space he uses for his campaign offices near Washington, D.C.’s Eastern Market.
It’s just a short walk from the Capitol. He runs back and forth between the two spaces, juggling House votes and hearings with his efforts to, as he puts it, take “a serious look” at making a bid for the White House.
So far, he’s focused almost entirely on national security and his efforts to help recruit and elect a new generation of veterans to public office, as he readies his pitch to early presidential primary voters.
“I hope that they come to see me as someone who doesn’t just talk about a new generation of leadership, but also goes out and fights for it,” Moulton said.
Democrats Want A Trump Slayer
But Democrats in the early voting states and in Massachusetts say that while national security is important, Moulton will have to do much more to resonate in these states, where discerning Democrats don’t give their support lightly.
He'll have to show not only that he understands the Democratic base and the domestic issues they care about to win the primary, but also prove that he is a Trump slayer.
“It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation,” said Scott Ferson, a Boston-based Democratic strategist who has worked on Moulton’s congressional races. “You can make the argument that if Seth Moulton were to run for president he would be a stronger general election candidate than some of the more progressive candidates are, [but] it's just harder to get through the primary if you’re appealing more the center of the electorate.”
In crucial early primary states, Democrats say ousting President Trump is job one.
"They want a winner," said William Sheehan, a Democratic National Committee member of New Hampshire voters. "They're not stuck on particular issues. They want the winner and the one who’s going to win big."
Sheehan, who chaired the New Hampshire primary bids for presidential candidates including Al Gore and John Kerry, is neutral. But he said there’s plenty of room for Moulton in the crowded field as Granite State voters decide who is best to take on the president.
And he thinks it’s smart of Moulton to focus on young people and veterans as he tours the early states.
“Once a veteran gives you his word, it’s bond. It’s gold. He’s sticking with you,” Sheehan said. “He doesn’t care what the odds are. He doesn’t care what the polls say.”
Moulton Says He's A 'Uniter'
But others say it will be much tougher, particularly in a state like South Carolina.
“This state is very different from the other early states because it’s the first state where there is a significant African-American population,” said Jaime Harrison, associate chair of the Democratic National Committee and former state party chair. “African-Americans will probably make up about 60 percent of the electorate for our primary next February, so you are going to have to address some of the issues that are pertinent in their communities.”
Those issues are here on the homefront: jobs, education and health care. And Moulton will have to be specific, Harrison said, like demonstrating an understanding of how rural hospital closures affect poorer South Carolinians’ access to quality care.
Harrison hasn’t talked to Moulton yet, but said he’s willing to give him and all candidates sound advice before they come to the state.
“What my advice to Congressman Moulton will be: Make sure you’re addressing those specific issues,” Harrison said. “You can’t take a cookie-cutter approach to running for president, particularly in these early states. You’re going to have to address the specifics that these folks want to hear.”
Moulton doesn’t see the fact that he is a white man in a diverse primary field as a disadvantage. He said his time in the military, where he was deployed to Iraq four times, taught him how to be the uniter he says his party needs.
“One of the toughest challenges of my life was leading a very diverse platoon in the midst of the most adverse conditions imaginable,” Moulton said. “And trying to get Americans from all different part so the country — with different religious beliefs, different political beliefs, people who had grown up in abject poverty and people who had grown up in very wealthy families — to all come together and get united behind a single mission. And it think that exactly what we need out of our next president."
Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist in Iowa, said Moulton’s military background will be helpful in other ways.
“I do think that having a military record is a contrast to the current president, and finding contrasts is going to be important in the fall of 2020,” Link said.
Drawing Some Eye Rolls
Back on Capitol Hill, some Democrats have privately expressed puzzlement at Moulton’s presidential flirtation. Others have met news of his nascent White House bid with eye rolls. Some have suggested that it might be a way for the third-term House lawmaker to change the subject from his recent public fight with Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Moulton helped lead the charge of an intra-party insurgency seeking to keep the gavel out of Pelosi’s hand after Democrats took back the House in November’s midterm elections. But without a clear challenger — and through Pelosi’s own ability to pick off the support of several of the Democratic rebels — the effort failed.
Moulton dismissed the notion that that loss would weigh against him on the presidential campaign trail. Only Washington insiders, journalists and pundits care about that sort of thing, he said.
And he said, his colleagues have expressed support.
“A number of colleagues have been very encouraging and have quietly said to me that they hope I do this because they believe I can win, they believe I can beat Donald Trump,” Moulton said. “But ultimately I’m not going to listen to the people in Washington. I'm going to listen to the American people.”
One fellow Massachusetts lawmaker he has spoken to about his plans is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has already thrown her hat into the presidential field.
“Sen. Warren and I talk quite regularly, and she actually reached out to me about a week before she announced and she said that she was going to run,” Moulton said.
Warren’s got the backing of several other members of the Massachusetts delegation, including Sen. Ed Markey and Reps. Joseph Kennedy III, Jim McGovern and Lori Trahan. Others in the delegation, including freshman Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Democratic Vice Chair Katherine Clark, are keeping their endorsement powder dry.
Moulton said he’s learned from experience, including his successful 2014 primary upset over longtime Rep. John Tierney, that it’s the voters who matter most.
“When I ran in 2014 the entire Massachusetts political establishment was against me,” Moulton said. “All the Democratic establishment lined up and said, 'You shouldn’t run.' In fact what they told me was not only would I lose this race I was running against an incumbent, but I would never be a part of Massachusetts politics again because I dared to challenge the establishment. And fundamentally what they were saying to me is, 'Seth, do not participate in the democracy you risked your life to defend.' And that’s wrong.”
This segment aired on March 15, 2019.