It’s still far too early to say if South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is going to be a frontrunner in the 2020 Democratic primary race, but the idea is clearly looking less far-fetched than it did when he first announced. The question on my mind this weekend is if the GOP – on a national level – and Donald Trump, in particular, are ready for him if he somehow snags the nomination.
It’s easy enough to write off Mayor Pete as being the “flavor of the day” on CNN, giving the media some interesting stories to spin until Biden officially gets into the race. At the moment, Buttigieg is still below 3% in the RCP polling average. But he did hit 4% in the first Quinnipiac survey of this cycle, doing significantly better than some candidates with far more national name recognition, such as Kirsten Gillibrand (who is hovering just above zero).
In addition to steady growth in the polls, Mayor Pete hauled in around $7M in the first quarter. That isn’t close to being a record, but he’s earned himself a spot at the debates and it’s enough cash to keep a lower-tier campaign staffed and in business for quite a while if you’re not burning through money wholesale. Plus, he’s getting a ton of earned media with little to no effort, largely because of his sexual orientation. Take, for example, this fluff piece from the Washington Post.
Pete Buttigieg was sitting in the back of a black SUV with a couple of staffers, sipping a still-steeping cup of tea to ease the fatigue from his suddenly frenetic schedule, when he looked out the window and interrupted himself.
“Man,” said Buttigieg, taking in the rainbow-hued signs and colorfully dressed passersby that signaled he had entered West Hollywood, Los Angeles’s de facto gay neighborhood. “It got real gay real quick out there.”
Few Democratic presidential candidates could assess their surroundings so bluntly without seeming painfully out of line. But Buttigieg is not like any other Democratic presidential candidate — in part, if not exclusively, because he is gay.
If the liberal base and their friends in the media don’t lose interest in Buttigieg and he continues to rise in the polls and fundraising competition, the GOP could have a problem on their hands. And if Mayor Pete somehow secures the nomination, this could spell serious trouble for a second Trump term.
First of all, the GOP is playing catch up here. Do you really think anyone was doing serious oppo research on the gay, 37-year-old Mayor of South Bend until about ten minutes ago? Doubtful. And if you’re scrambling to come up with opposition material after your opponent is already out of the gate, they get to define themselves before you have a shot at doing it for them.
Republicans will have to walk a fine line in going after him, even if there’s some hot oppo out there. The public seems focused on all the stories about what a nice guy he is. You probably already heard about how he rushed out of the house to gather paperwork, round up witnesses and marry a couple only minutes before the wife gave birth to their child, just so the baby wouldn’t be born out of wedlock. There are others describing how he’s shown up at the scene of local problems in South Bend and just jumped in to lend a hand without announcing his presence. For all I know the guy has been rescuing cats out of trees and helping put our fires.
The point is, I’m hearing more people, including close personal friends, talking about how much they admire him. If he gets up at a lectern in a debate against the President and Trump starts swinging haymakers at him, viewers are going to start asking why the mean orange man is picking on nice Mayor Pete so much. It’s a potential trap.
That’s not the only pitfall waiting in the wings, either. There’s “the gay trap,” similar to the female or minority traps. If you go after Buttigieg on any issue, the Democrats will be waiting to immediately throw out a flag and accuse you of homophobia. (The same way any criticism of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton was immediately labeled as racism or sexism.) This factor will apply in both the primary and the general election if Mayor Pete makes it that far.
Also, as I mentioned above, Buttigieg will continue to rake in tons of earned media because he’s from a liberal, politically favored demographic group. That won’t slow down much at all unless the candidate either seriously shoots himself in the foot or one of the other Democrats begins pulling away with a prohibitive lead. All in all, the GOP should already be taking Pete Buttigieg seriously. Better to be prepared and not need the ammo than to be caught off guard.