NEW YORK — Some of the most influential forces in Democratic politics revolted Monday against former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s prospective presidential bid, insisting that an independent run would unintentionally help President Donald Trump win another four years in office.
The critics included the Democratic chairman of Schultz’s home state, another billionaire businessman who long flirted with an independent run of his own, former President Barack Obama’s chief strategist, and the most powerful super PAC in Democratic politics.
“If Schultz entered the race as an independent, we would consider him a target. … We would do everything we can to ensure that his candidacy is unsuccessful,” said Patrick McHugh, executive director of Priorities USA, which spent nearly USD$200 million in the 2016 presidential contest.
Specifically, he seized on Schultz’s apparent willingness to cut entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security to narrow the federal deficit.
“The bottom line,” McHugh said, “is that I don’t think Americans are looking for another selfish billionaire to enter the race.”
The intense pushback in the early days of the 2020 campaign reflects the passion Democrats are bringing to the race to deny Trump a second term. Rank-and-file voters and party officials alike are anxious about any hurdle that would prevent them from seizing on Trump’s unpopularity.
While no independent has won the presidency since George Washington, Democrats fear that Schultz would almost certainly split their vote and give Trump an easier path to re-election. Yet Democrats concede that they had few tools to dissuade Schultz from launching an independent campaign – as he told CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday he was considering – though many were skeptical that he would actually follow through.
Schultz felt the passion of the anti-Trump resistance moments after he took the stage Monday evening in New York City to promote his new book.
“Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire!” a protester shouted before being ejected by security.
In an interview with The Associated Press after the appearance, he acknowledged that his prospective run might be “threatening” to some Democrats, but said, “my heart’s in the right place.”
The 65-year-old billionaire confirmed that he has identified as a Democrat his entire life. But Schultz suggested his moderate approach might attract a significant number of Republican voters frustrated with Trump in addition to Democrats turned off by the party’s embrace of liberal policies, such as universal health care and free tuition at public universities.
“Who’s to say that lifelong Republicans given the choice between Donald Trump and a far-left liberal, progressive Democrat – if they had a better choice where are they going to go?” he asked. “My views are squarely in the middle.”
Schultz said he would make his decision in the “summer-fall” after spending the coming months traveling around the country – in part promoting a new book – to test whether there’s interest in an independent presidential candidate, according to a person familiar with his planning. Asked how much of his personal fortune he’d be willing to spend on the election, he said only: “I’m going to do what’s necessary.”
Schultz’s team has polled on the viability of a third-party run and believes there is an opening, though they have not shared the specifics of their internal surveys.
He’s being advised by a team with experience in both parties, including Steve Schmidt, who worked on Republican John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, and former Obama adviser Bill Burton, who joined Schultz at his Monday appearance in New York.
Schultz’s team also includes Republican pollster Greg Strimple, GOP strategist Brooks Kochvar, former journalist Erin McPike and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, another former journalist who has worked closely with Schultz since 2015.
Yet history – and the reality of a political system designed to favor major-party candidates – suggests that Schultz may do little more than play spoiler should he decide to run. Bloomberg, who studied the possibility of an independent run of his own in the past, offered Schultz a direct message based on his own experience.
“The data was very clear and very consistent. Given the strong pull of partisanship and the realities of the electoral college system, there is no way an independent can win. That is truer today than ever before,” Bloomberg, who is considering a Democratic 2020 bid, said in a statement.
He continued: “In 2020, the great likelihood is that an independent would just split the anti-Trump vote and end up re-electing the president. That’s a risk I refused to run in 2016, and we can’t afford to run it now.”
The angry voices were far and wide, and they included Obama’s former chief strategist, David Axelrod, along with Democrats from Schultz’s home state.
“If Schultz decides to run as an independent,” Axelrod tweeted, Trump “should give Starbucks their Trump Tower space rent free! It would be a gift.”
Tina Podlodowski, the Democratic chairwoman in Washington state, where Schultz has lived for decades, discouraged him from running as an independent.
“A billionaire buying his way out of the entire primary process does not strengthen democracy,” she said. “It only makes it more likely that our democracy will be further strained under another four years of President Donald Trump.”
Perhaps trying to elevate Schultz, who is not well known among Democratic primary voters, Trump himself weighed in on Monday, tweeting that Schultz “doesn’t have the ‘guts’ to run for President!”
The Seattle billionaire was in New York Monday to promote his latest book, “From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America.” After New York, he has stops this week in Tempe, Arizona; Seattle; and San Francisco – but no dates listed for the early voting states of Iowa or New Hampshire.
On paper, Schultz offers a number of qualities that might appeal to voters. He grew up in public housing in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and became the first person in his family to graduate from college.
He’s also been a longtime Democratic donor, contributing to the campaigns of Obama, Hillary Clinton, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, among others. In Monday’s interview, he said McCain was the only Republican he had ever donated money to.
The soft-spoken businessman has also criticized Trump, telling employees that the president was creating “chaos” and hurting business; calling Trump’s tax cuts for corporations unnecessary and reckless; and vowing to hire 10,000 refugees after Trump issued an executive order banning travel from seven mostly Muslim nations.
The Democratic National Committee declined to address Schultz directly. Spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa offered only this response: “We are focused on defeating Donald Trump, and anyone who shares that goal should vote for the Democrat nominee in 2020.”
Story: Steve Peoples, Gene Johnson