What Didn’t Work: Eric Swalwell Exits 2020 Primary

By Pat Rynard

July 8, 2019

Eric Swalwell couldn’t quite wrestle that torch away from Joe Biden, or from any of the other Democratic contenders, for that matter.

The California congressman became the first invested presidential candidate to drop out of the primary today. Swalwell made the announcement this afternoon in his home district, deciding instead to run for reelection there.

So, what didn’t work?

Let’s start with the initial rationale of Swalwell’s candidacy, because there were moments in the very early stages of 2020 jockeying last year where you could see where he fit into the bigger picture.

Swalwell, 38, represented a new generation of leadership within the Democratic Party, and he came with a David-vs-Goliath story of defeating a 40-year incumbent in a primary to get to Congress. He’d networked with other young leaders in the U.S. House and across the country with his Future Forum.

He also had useful early state roots: Swalwell was born in Sac City, Iowa, and his family lived in Algona, Iowa for a time. His current Bay Area district lent to good fundraising opportunities, and Swalwell was frequently on TV for his role in the Russian investigation. And the congressman had a signature issue to help stand out in the field: gun safety reform.

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The problem, as we’ll likely see with others who drop out early, is that the field was simply too crowded for someone of his relatively small national profile to get noticed.

Imagine if the field was only a dozen candidates large, something that seemed possible in February when several top potential contenders like Eric Garcetti took a pass. Were Swalwell in the race with the names we initially thought were big like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro and Beto O’Rourke, you could see a situation where voters think, “Hey, who’s this other guy?” and try to learn more.

The problem is that when there’s so many “other guys,” especially when most are straight white men, it just becomes nearly impossible for Democratic voters to give you a serious look.

Swalwell’s one big hope of generational appeal quickly got undercut as soon as Pete Buttigieg, who is one year his junior, took off in March. The rest of Buttigieg’s profile provided a compelling appeal, and if you wanted to go with the young person in the race, why not choose the guy who already had serious momentum and money.

Kamala Harris’ entrance into the race (which was not always a given) presumably made it more complicated for Swalwell’s San Francisco fundraising (as did Buttigieg’s rise).

We’ve seen in past Iowa caucuses how an Iowa connection simply isn’t enough to lift a candidate. And pursuing the most stringent gun control measures, including those that would confiscate assault rifles, helped Swalwell stand out among gun reform activists, but it also sounded politically dangerous to rural Democrats who have seen their local candidates get pummeled over the guns issue.

Swalwell did have his moments in Iowa. While his official presidential bid lasted only around three months, he was a constant presence in Iowa for far longer than almost anyone else.

He travelled the state extensively and early on, it appears trailing just John Delaney in the number of counties visited. His visits and investments back in 2018 built up good will among activists, even landing him the support of the chair of the Black Hawk County Democrats. Party leaders here liked him, and Swalwell built up a good staff of people with Iowa experience (no sure thing for a lesser-known candidate like himself). And Starting Line met several people who attended Swalwell’s events in Western Iowa because they knew his father.

In the end, however, it wasn’t enough. He took his best swing in the first debate, but the back-and-forths between the top-tier candidates drowned that moment out. And with the possibility he might miss the next debate, it was clear where this was headed.

Swalwell will still be an important part of the conversation in Congress, and his efforts there to build up the bench of new Democratic leaders may lay the foundation for another young leader to run for president at some point. Or maybe we’ll see Swalwell out here again for another run, a decade or two down the line. He’s got plenty of time and a still-bright future on the national stage.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 7/8/19

  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.



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