There are lots and lots of high-profile Democrats running for president; there are not many high-profile Democrats running for Senate. And the pressure to change that is becoming more overt, as a party hopeful of winning back the presidency in 2020 confronts difficult math when it comes to also taking the Senate.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of how this shakes out.
The New York Times’s Reid J. Epstein reported Tuesday that former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper is considering dropping down into his state’s high-profile Senate race after failing to gain traction in the Democratic presidential primary. In Texas, the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board this weekend urged Beto O’Rourke to make a similar calculated switch. And in Montana, there have been efforts to persuade Gov. Steve Bullock.
One candidate who has erased any lingering doubts: Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who on Tuesday opted against running for president and reaffirmed that there will be no Senate bid, either.
The reason this is important is pretty simple: Democrats need at least three pickups to take the Senate, and they may need four. Yet Republicans are defending only two states that went blue in the 2016 election. In that same election, every state with a Senate race picked a senator and the presidential candidate from the same party. In our increasingly polarized, almost-parliamentary political system, it’s tougher to buck the top of the ticket.
Unless, perhaps, you are a candidate with a strong image and a demonstrated history of outperforming your party. That’s what these Democrats could bring to the 2020 Senate races.
In Texas, O’Rourke lost to Sen. Ted Cruz (R) by two percentage points in 2018, notching the best performance by a non-incumbent Texas Democrat since 1978. He also set a record for fundraising by a Senate candidate — in any state.
There has been plenty of ink spilled about Democrats possibly making Texas more competitive at the presidential level, even as early as 2020. But President Trump still won the state by nine points in 2016, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) is relatively popular among those who know him, with a 44 percent approval rating and a 33 percent disapproval rating, according to a June Quinnipiac poll. It will probably be tougher for O’Rourke or any other Democrat to win in a presidential year than it was in 2018, but he has demonstrated an ability to compete statewide, which is something precious few Texas Democrats can claim.
The situation is somewhat similar in Montana. Trump won that state by double his Texas margin: 18 points. Despite that, Bullock won reelection by four points on the same day. And a post-2018 Montana State University poll showed him with a similar image (60 percent approval, 35 percent disapproval) to Republican Sen. Steve Daines (58-31). It may be tougher for a Democrat such as Bullock to win a federal race — and again, especially in a red state, in a presidential year — but he might be the only candidate who could put the state in play.
The situation in Colorado is somewhat different. This is one of the two blue states Republicans are defending in 2020 — Hillary Clinton won it by five points — and it’s the more vulnerable of the two (as long as Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins doesn’t retire). Unlike the others above, this is one Democrats seem to have a good shot at winning even without Hickenlooper. The Cook Political Report lists it as a “toss-up.”
But Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) has also shown himself to be a very capable politician. He’s got mediocre image numbers — 40 percent favorable, 39 percent unfavorable last month — but he won’t be a pushover, especially if Colorado is at all competitive at the presidential level. What Hickenlooper would bring to the race is a two-term former governor who won a reelection race in a tough Democratic year in 2014 — the same year Gardner won his Senate seat, no less. Hickenlooper’s image hasn’t been as sterling as Bullock’s up north, but his approval rating has sometimes been double-digits higher than his disapproval. And provided he can win a primary (which may not be assured, given his centrist moves in the presidential race), he probably starts as a slight favorite against Gardner.
The Hickenlooper situation is telling. Like the other two, he was running for president and didn’t want to hear the talk about running for Senate. Such will be the case when you have higher aspirations; to even entertain it is to signal you’re not all-in on running for president. But as the polls haven’t improved and the fundraising has dried up, he’s reportedly looking for another option. And Senate makes a lot of sense — especially given that you can transfer all that presidential money to the next campaign.
It may not be as attractive a fallback for O’Rourke or Bullock, given the longer odds in their states. But there were 30 red states in the 2016 election and 20 blue states, meaning Democrats need to put some of these kinds of states in play, one way or another. Getting candidates like these to hear that case and take the plunge is important.
A Senate majority for a new Democratic president could depend on it.