Rep. John Delaney, a former Potomac businessman who has cultivated a reputation for bipartisanship during three terms in Congress, announced Friday that he will run for the Democratic nomination for president — making him the first candidate to challenge President Donald J. Trump.
The centrist Democrat, little known outside his district, will face a steep climb in building a credible national campaign. His departure from Maryland, meanwhile, could alter the landscape in the state’s looming governor’s race and its most competitive congressional district.
Delaney, one of the only members of Congress to have run a public company, appears to center his presidential campaign on an economic message that the nation is poised to rebound if Washington embraces a “new economy” that is more entrepreneurial and forward-looking.
“There have been moments in history where big ideas have really changed things, and I think I have some big ideas,” Delaney, 54, said in an interview. “I think I have something to say.”
Delaney’s decision comes two years after another Marylander, former Gov. Martin O’Malley, launched an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination.
O’Malley faced many of the same challenges awaiting Delaney: He was virtually unknown on the national stage, and he was seeking to appeal to the party’s liberal base after spending much of his time in office as a centrist.
The congressman, who announced his campaign in a Washington Post op-ed, said he knows the race will be a challenge, and said that is why he is beginning work on it now, nearly three years before the Iowa caucuses.
“I know what I’m getting into,” Delaney said. “I want to do all the hard work to earn people’s trust, to listen to them, and I feel like as I run this campaign over the next couple of years people will get to know me.”
Ron Klain, a Washington attorney who was Vice President Joe Biden's chief of staff and who has known Delaney for a decade, warned against underestimating the congressman.
“I think that we’re going to see in 2020 a pretty broad array of people putting themselves forward, given the fact that someone who had a zero percent chance three years ago is now our president,” Klain said. “Every presidential campaign is a long shot.”
Several Democratic colleagues in the state’s congressional delegation praised Delaney’s work in Congress but were noncommittal on his plan. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Southern Maryland lawmaker and No. 2 Democrat in the House, predicted that Delaney would “bring an important perspective to the national debate.” Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County described Delaney as a “smart, thoughtful legislator” and predicted he would be a “great candidate.”
Delaney’s decision not to run for governor next year could ease the path for other candidates, including incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, by taking some of the pressure off the race for money. Delaney, the third-wealthiest member of Congress with a net worth of at least $90 million, has invested heavily in his past campaigns.
In the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Delaney’s absence could also benefit centrist candidates by clearing the field of a like-minded politician.
“It opens up space for another moderate,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. “What we’ve seen so far is a real focus on the hard left. With him deciding not to run, the race is wide open for the center.”
State Republicans dismissed the idea that Delaney would have had a big impact on the governor’s race.
"Congressman Delaney is a successful businessman, and this seems like a smart business decision," said Maryland Republican Party Chairman Dirk Haire, suggesting that Delaney could not have beaten Hogan, a popular incumbent.
Delaney’s departure also creates a political free-for-all for his 6th Congressional District and gives Republicans their best opportunity in years to pick up a seat in the state’s congressional delegation.
Delaney barely won his 2014 re-election, beating Republican Dan Bongino by less than 2 points in that year’s midterm. The district includes portions of Montgomery and Frederick counties along with Western Maryland.
Several Democratic candidates have already started to raise money for the possibility of the rare open House seat in Maryland, and at least one Republican — national security consultant Amie Hoeber — has said she is mulling another run for the district.
A member of the Financial Services Committee, Delaney has built reputation as a centrist — though he said Friday he rejects the label. His first major piece of legislation, which would allow companies to repatriate overseas cash at a lower tax rate in order to pay for infrastructure investment, was embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Yet Delaney may have to work to bridge the distance between many of his own stances and his party's turn to the left after last year's election.
The already strained relationship he has had with labor unions, for instance, was complicated further when Delaney became the only member of Maryland's congressional delegation in 2015 to support giving President Barack Obama fast-track authority for a landmark trade agreement with Pacific Rim nations.
The measure, ardently opposed by labor, also was rejected by both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Trump. In a clear sign of displeasure for that vote, the Maryland State and D.C. AFL-CIO backed every Democratic incumbent for Congress in 2016 except for Delaney.
A video released by Delaney’s campaign Friday touts the congressman’s humble roots, growing up in New Jersey in the shadow of Giants Stadium. He worked construction jobs with his late father during summers. "Son of a union electrician" became a mantra for Delaney in past campaigns, and the line is used in the video released Friday as well.
The five-minute clip immediately tackles the issue of Trump’s presidency.
“The biggest problem with Trump is that he’s not focused on the future,” Delaney says. “We really have to show the American people there’s a better way.”
A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee said Delaney would have been better served by “reaching across the aisle” to work with the current president.
“Instead,” spokesman Ellie Hockenbury said in a statement, “it appears he’ll spend his time plotting an unrealistic political climb that puts his own ambitions first.”
Delaney was largely unknown when he announced his campaign for Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett's seat in 2011. The founder and CEO of CapitalSource, a commercial and retail bank in Chevy Chase, Delaney faced a popular state senator in the Democratic primary, Robert J. Garagiola.
Delaney's unlikely campaign picked up steam in the weeks before the 2012 primary, particularly after he won endorsements from former President Bill Clinton and The Washington Post. A longtime supporter of both Bill and Hillary Clinton, Delaney raised money for both of their presidential campaigns.
With that support in hand, Delaney went on to win the primary and unseat Bartlett — a 10-term Republican incumbent — in a district that had been redrawn to be more competitive for Democrats.
Delaney, who is married and has four daughters, studied biology at Columbia University. He gave up on a career in medicine to follow roommates to Georgetown Law, where he met his wife. April Delaney is the Washington director of Common Sense Media.
Delaney bought a small health care company after graduating, retooled its operations and sold it for a profit. In 1993, he co-founded HealthCare Financial Partners, a company that lent money to nursing homes and doctors. He took it public three years later, becoming the youngest CEO in the history of the New York Stock Exchange at age 32.
He made millions when he sold that company in 1999. He then founded CapitalSource in 2000 and led it as CEO for nearly a decade. The commercial and retail bank makes loans to small and medium-sized businesses.
Delaney could use his personal fortune to ramp up a campaign faster than other candidates. Delaney said Friday he intends to have a “very substantial national grass roots oriented campaign” but said he would invest in his candidacy if needed.
Rumors of Delaney’s intentions have raced through Maryland political circles for weeks and were amplified after MSNBC personality Chris Matthews — husband of the chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party — said on the network months ago that Delaney was looking for office space in Iowa.
The congressman said he intends to visit Iowa next month to stump at the state fair. He said he also expects to hold a Facebook Live event from his hometown in New Jersey.
“I view myself in this race as something of a long-distance swimmer,” Delaney said. “I’m jumping in first, and I’m going to swim really hard.”