As an encapsulation of a flawed political strategy, it’s tough to do better than that.
Before getting into this, it’s important to emphasize that O’Rourke can do what he wants. Running for any office requires extraordinary time and effort, and if you really don’t think it’s worth your while, nobody’s going to be able to convince you. It’s also important to emphasize that him rejecting a Senate bid is somewhat perfunctory; no presidential candidate is going to say, “Yeah, if this doesn’t work out, I’ll just run for that other office.” Hickenlooper rejected the speculation too, saying (somewhat similarly to O’Rourke) that the Senate wasn’t “my calling.”
But O’Rourke’s justification for staying in the presidential campaign is another matter entirely. And there are several logical and strategic flaws with it.
The first is the idea that running for Senate isn’t “good enough.” There’s a credible case to be made that the Senate is as important as the presidency. The Senate confirms Supreme Court justices and other judges. The Senate probably needs to go Democratic (or at least be very close), if a new Democratic president were to be able to sign gun control legislation in the aftermath of a tragedy like the El Paso mass shooting. The Democrats hold the House, meaning if they win the presidency in 2020, the Senate Republicans and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would be in a position to gum things up. Having a high-profile figure like O’Rourke say the Senate isn’t “good enough” for those looking to make change in Washington is a terrible message for other would-be recruits.
A second is the implicit idea that the presidential race needs him. Even if you do believe Job No. 1 is to “take the fight directly” to Trump and defeat him in 2020, it has lots of people who are willing to do that. Does O’Rourke truly think that fight won’t be taken to Trump if he, personally, is not in the race? If he does, that’s quite the indictment of his primary opponents.
And an extension of that is this: Democrats have lots of people willing to take the fight to Trump, but they have too few who are willing to wage uphill campaigns for Senate. As I wrote Wednesday, the reality of the Senate map is that Democrats need to win red states, given there were 30 of them in 2016 vs. only 20 blue states. That often means landing prized recruits with demonstrated histories of overperforming their party’s fundamentals. O’Rourke and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock fit that mold, as does Hickenlooper to an extent.
There may be others who could compete — O’Rourke wasn’t heralded when he got into his 2018 race against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), after all — but these are the known quantities who could do it from day one. Without them, the odds of a Democratic Senate takeover are significantly lower, because even if the party wins the presidency, it’s not even clear if it can put enough seats in play to capitalize on a good Election Day.
Texas is a great example of the kind of state Democrats need to start putting in play. O’Rourke just came within two points of unseating Cruz, which was the best showing for a non-incumbent Texas Democrat since 1978. The fundamentals are trending Democratic. He wouldn’t start as the favorite against Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), but he’d have a shot.
And right now the Democrats need people to take shots. If they all adopt the attitude that taking that shot isn’t “good enough,” they might find themselves in the Senate minority for a while.