There are more long-shot Democrats running for president this year than there have been total candidates in previous campaigns—and next week, Eric Swalwell is joining the pack. The California congressman and frequent cable news guest on all things related to President Donald Trump and Russia, will announce his presidential plans in an appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. But he won’t be running on Russia, or on the continuing fallout from the Mueller report and Barr letter. Swalwell will center his campaign on gun control.
Helping him do that will be Cameron Kasky, a survivor of the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who became prominent in the March for Our Lives student movement. Swalwell has written about being inspired by the youth movement in his call to ban all assault weapons, and Kasky was his guest at the State of the Union in February. Together, they’re organizing a town hall that Swalwell will host in Coral Springs, Florida, on Monday. Swalwell announced the town hall on Wednesday afternoon, but made no mention in the public announcement of his political plans.
When I reached out to Swalwell on Wednesday evening, he wouldn’t confirm the news, but he didn’t leave much doubt that he intends to run for president. “We are doing a town hall in Parkland,” he told me. “And I do believe that gun safety has to be a top 2020 issue.”
Swalwell, a fourth-term congressman from northern California who’s been involved in politics since he won a city council seat as a college senior at the University of Maryland, is 38 years old. He has been building up to a run for months, with his staff stepping up outreach to donors in recent weeks. But the gun control focus has developed quietly. Last week, he invited Moms Demand Gun Safety founder Shannon Watts to join him at an annual event with veterans at a shooting range. He tweeted a photo of himself firing at a target and one posing with Watts on the range, but made no mention of his political plans.
“It’s a true sea change in presidential politics that the candidates are competing to be the strongest on this issue, which means Americans will have a plethora of gun sense champions to choose from,” Watts told me when I reached out to her on Wednesday. “The calculus on guns has changed, and gun safety is no longer a third rail—in fact, making this issue a priority in your policy platform is how you win. Representative Swalwell has a long track record of being good on the issue of gun safety, and we welcome him to race.”
As of now, all the 2020 Democrats are in essentially the same place on issues of gun control, but Swalwell believes there’s an opportunity in making that his main issue—much like Washington Governor Jay Inslee agrees with the rest of the field on climate change, but is the only one making it the focus of his campaign. Unlike climate change, however, gun control is harder to connect to as many other issues, from economic growth to national security, as Inslee has been doing. And while most Democrats support universal background checks, an assault weapons ban and other restrictions, gun control hasn’t been showing up as high on the list of top issues for voters.
As Swalwell had been discussing a run, many assumed that he’d use his position on the House Intelligence Committee and the TV notoriety it’s brought him to make the case. He had been moving away from that plan for weeks, though, even before the Mueller report produced no new indictments and Attorney General William Barr said in a letter to Congress that the special counsel had found no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
I asked Swalwell if he had moved away from the Trump campaign and Russia as a possible issue in his presidential run because Mueller had found no collusion. He pointed me to a New York Times story that ran Wednesday night, “Some on Mueller’s Team Say Report Was More Damaging Than Barr Revealed.” But he made it clear the Mueller report was not a factor in his campaign plans.
“I’m not running on Russia,” Swalwell added, then attempted to pull it back slightly, “if I were to run.”
On Twitter meanwhile, Swalwell posted a voicemail he says he received at his office, with a man angrily screaming about his position on guns and threatening to kill him. “I’m not afraid of this guy,” Swalwell wrote. “I’m not afraid of the NRA. I’m not afraid. No fear.”