Former Senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) cuts an eccentric figure, and always has. He ran unsuccessfully for President in 2008 and his avant garde campaign ad, “Rock“, has gone down as one of the best campaign ads in history.

He’s also pretty sure aliens are monitoring us. And he’s got some ideas about what really happened on 9/11. And in the 2020 race, he’s just as strangely fascinating as ever.

In a field where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and former Vice President Joe Biden have been called too old at 77 and 76 respectively, Gravel is 88. His 2020 campaign, though, is the brainchild of high school students.

The fascinating story of a campaign run entirely without the candidate, staffed by people who weren’t alive while he was in elected office has captured headlines. Gravel’s acerbic twitter, run by the campaign, has gone viral. But beneath the typical Gravel atypicality is a very timely message.

“We pitched it to him as a way to get the Democratic Party to move towards views that are more moral, more sensible in many ways,” said David Oks, the high school senior who is running Gravel’s exploratory committee.

Gravel is a longer shot than most long shot candidates, but the goal for the teens and the octogenarian isn’t victory. The goal is to get into the debates. In 2008, Gravel famously said other candidates frightened him and that motivated his bombastic debate performances where he drove a strong anti-war agenda.

There’s already excitement about what Gravel would do in 2020 debates.

The agenda this time? Democracy itself.

“[They] had the idea I should run not to win, but to expose ideas, particularly on direct democracy,” Gravel told Politico. “We had no pretensions that we would win.”

Gravel has a history of championing direct democracy, and more than any time in recent memory direct democracy could use a champion.

In Florida, the Republican-controlled state legislature has introduced several measures, including one characterized as a poll tax, to undermine the citizen-led initiative that restored voting rights to felons who served their time.

In California, a bloc of Democratic legislators introduced a plan to repeal state laws prohibition rent control as a part of the state’s desperate attempt to resolve the affordable housing crisis gripping the state. Voters rejected that measure.

Perhaps most egregiously, in Michigan, the Republican-controlled state legislature preemptively passed a citizen-led initiative to raise the minimum wage to keep it off the ballot in 2018 so they could immediately water it down dramatically in a procedural gimmick to deny the people a vote.

The organizers are working to convince Gravel (“They need to persuade my wife,” Gravel said) to go from their exploratory committee to a full-blown campaign. They’re also working to get the 65,000 donors needed to get Gravel in the debates.

But given his viral moment, the campaign is optimistic about winning over the candidate.

“He’s excited there’s a market for these ideas,” said college freshman and ‘Gravel Gang’ member Henry Williams. “He said he’s far more interested than he was a couple days ago.”

Gravel’s potential entry is another spark in what promises to be an electrifying Democratic primary.


Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.

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