By Molly Ball
October 25, 2018

Michael Avenatti, the lawyer and possible presidential candidate, caused a stir with his contention that there’s only one type of candidate who can beat President Trump. In an interview with TIME published Thursday, Avenatti said the Democrats’ 2020 nominee “better be a white male,” because society affords more credibility to white men than it does others.

Though the statement has struck many as inflammatory, it represents a real, if usually private, debate within the Democratic Party—one that is likely to recur as the next presidential election approaches. Avenatti, who once worked as a researcher on political campaigns, clarified his position on Thursday:

Read More: Michael Avenatti’s Past Won’t Stop Him From Running in 2020

Here’s what Avenatti told TIME in an interview on June 25 in New York City, before he began publicly considering a presidential run:

Is there anybody that you like in the Democratic political class? Or do you think [the 2020 nominee] should be someone from outside politics?

I think it better be a white male.

Really?

100%. And I don’t say that because I want it to have to be a white male. I say that because of just the realities of the situation. I think if the Democrats nominate anyone other than a white male at the top of the ticket, they’re gonna lose the election. I’d be willing to bet anything. I feel highly confident in that. And it shouldn’t be that way for this election–

But just because the electorate is too racist and sexist?

Because of where the electorate lines up and where Trump’s strengths lie. And I think if you nominate–

So Obama only won because of who he was running against? But a Trump who activates people’s racism and sexism —

No, I think Obama could have won against a lot of people. But I think this is a very unique situation. I think Donald Trump is a very unique candidate. And I think if you run anyone other than a white male against him in 2020 — and I think a lot of people in the party agree with me on this, and I think a lot of people disagree with me — I think you are begging for a repeat of 2016. That’s what I believe. Firmly. I firmly believe that. Look. If Joe Biden would have run in 2016, if Beau, his son, had not tragically died, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now. We wouldn’t be sitting here because I would have no case against Donald Trump.

You don’t think he’d have been able to demonize Biden the way he did Hillary?

No. No. And look, here’s what’s unfortunate. It’s very difficult for a woman to run against Donald Trump. Women face a very, very difficult time when they run for higher elected office unfortunately, especially against a guy like Donald Trump. Okay? If they don’t hit hard enough, they’re soft, right? And if they hit back with the same force as a man, they’re classified as a bitch, right? Which is entirely unfair to women. And that’s a very fine line for a woman to walk. And it’s a line that a man doesn’t have to walk. And, again, that’s not right. It shouldn’t be that way. But it’s a very, very difficult walk.

So I do think it is a critical mistake for anyone other than a white male to lead the top of the ticket in 2020. And I wish I didn’t have to say that. I wish it was different. But it’s not, in my view. That’s just my view. I might be wrong about this.

In a separate interview the same day, Avenatti said the disproportionate authority society grants to white men is also a part of his success as an advocate:

One of the reasons why I’ve been effective with women — and others, but especially with women — is because I think it’s different when you have a white male making the arguments. I think they carry more weight. Should they carry more weight? Absolutely not. But do they? Yes. It’s no different than when I make arguments on behalf of Hispanic families at the border. Because I happen to be a white guy, I think that they carry more weight. I think there’s a segment of our population that looks at that and doesn’t immediately discount what I’m saying, because I happen to be one of them. Which is outrageous, that people view things that way. That’s not right. That’s not right. But the reality of the situation is that it’s important that we have white males standing up for women, standing up for minorities.

Avenatti is considering running against Trump in 2020
Philip Montgomery for TIME

In a subsequent interview, Avenatti made the same point in response to a question about whether he might himself run for office:

I’m not presently putting together a presidential run, but whoever the Democrats nominate in 2020 better be a street fighter, better be prepared to take the fight to Mr. Trump. If you want to know what ‘They go low, we go high’ looks like, go interview Michael Dukakis about 1988. I think this is unfortunate—please get this right—I firmly believe, and I wish this were not true, neither a woman nor minority can successfully lead the ticket for the Democrats in 2020. There is no doubt in my mind that that’s true. Do I think that’s right? Absolutely not. Do I think it’s 100% correct? Yes.

Democrats have responded to the Trump presidency by nominating a record number of women and minority candidates for the upcoming midterms. Many of the party’s prospective 2020 candidates are also women or people of color, and black women in particular are the party’s most reliable voters. But even if they don’t put it in Avenatti’s stark terms, many in the party argue that the path to victory lies not in galvanizing reliably Democratic demographics, but in finding a way to appeal to swing-voting whites. It’s those voters—non-college-educated whites in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that swung to Trump and put him over the top in 2016.

Whether openly or in code, the 2020 Democrats will have to address a version of Avenatti’s sentiment, which is also on the minds of the party rank and file. Indeed, in interviews with a dozen attendees at the New Hampshire Democratic picnic where Avenatti spoke, the issue came up more than once. “I don’t think we should be trying to elect a woman, a black person or a Hispanic,” said Nancy Walton-Hamm, a white 68-year-old retired computer programmer. “Too many old white guys won’t support that. I’d be willing to wait another generation” for a woman president.

As a potential candidate, Avenatti is seeking to create an image as a product of the American heartland. “That’s why I’m very dangerous to this president — that’s exactly why the last thing in the world this guy wants is to run against somebody like me,” he told TIME. “Because I can talk to those people, and whoever the Democratic nominee is better be able to talk to those people.”

Whether or not Avenatti’s on the stage, the 2020 contenders will be debating this point.

Write to Molly Ball at molly.ball@time.com.

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