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Jeff Merkley wants to be Democratic presidential nominee in 2020 election

December 19, 2018

DES MOINES, Iowa | Sen. Jeff Merkley plans to auction off a signed “Make Earth Cool Again” hat this week here, both to mock President Trump and to make the case that Democrats need to look for a presidential candidate who can lead on climate change.

The Oregon Democrat is looking to be that candidate.

He is scheduled to be in Iowa this week to woo liberal activists, looking to remind them of his anti-Trump activities in Congress and convince them he’s a worthy standard-bearer for their causes.

Outside of the 365-day activist crowd, rank-and-file Democratic voters are still getting to know the two-term senator who often has been overshadowed by like-minded lawmakers with bigger national profiles, such as Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

But his profile started to rise in 2017 when he led a 15-hour faux-filibuster against the confirmation of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Perhaps a bigger moment came this year when, at the start of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance border policy, he attempted to visit a migrant detention facility and was turned away and caught it all on video, which he posted online.

It was one of the sparks for the uproar that helped end the separation of immigrant families who crossed the border illegally.

“People were very intrigued and appreciative that [Mr. Merkley] was doing that and drawing attention to that issue,” said Matt Sinovic, president of Progress Iowa, which is hosting the holiday party where Mr. Merkley’s hat will be sold to the highest bidder. “We will have to wait and see how that plays out in the context of a race, but it definitely struck a chord with people.”

Mr. Merkley got his start in elected office in 1998 when he won a seat in the state legislature, where he served for a decade, including his final years as speaker of the House. In 2008, he toppled Republican incumbent Sen. Gordon H. Smith.

He was the only sitting Democrat to endorse Mr. Sanders’ 2016 run, putting him squarely on the side of the liberal activists who flocked to the liberal icon.

During this year’s campaigns, Mr. Merkley made a number of stops across the county, including in the early primary states, and his political action committee funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates running for state and federal office, including in Iowa, where he helped out Reps.-elect Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer.

Mr. Merkley’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

He highlighted his support for government-sponsored universal health care, debt-free college and moving the nation toward 100 percent renewable energy. And he embraced special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

“He has portrayed himself as a very thoughtful and earnest senator who is on the cutting edge on a number of issues that progressives really care about,” said Raymond Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democrats.

Still, activists say Mr. Merkley’s road to the nomination is filled with major obstacles.

They question how the mild-mannered Merkley could become the top choice of voters when the race is expected to feature the likes of Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, and possibly a younger generation of elected leaders, including Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who have inspired liberal activism across the country.

An Iowa poll released over the weekend showed that former Vice President Joseph R. Biden leads the pack with support from 32 percent of caucus goers, followed by Mr. Sanders, 19 percent, Mr. O’Rourke, 11 percent, and Ms. Warren, 8 percent.

Mr. Merkley was not even included in the survey. And he barely registered in another online poll from Democracy for America on Tuesday that sought to take the temperature of liberal activists.

Mr. Merkley received less than 1 percent of the more than 90,000 votes cast online, good enough for 13th place.

“Jeff Merkley is a progressive hero,” said Adam Green, spokesman for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “If Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke don’t run, it would be great if he did.”

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