When Montana Gov. Steve Bullock considered whether he should run for Senate or president, the decision was a no brainer: president.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper stewed over that same choice and came to the same conclusion: President, hands down.
And even after Stacey Abrams, the failed Democratic 2018 gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, was asked repeatedly to run for Senate, the former Democratic leader in the Georgia House told Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee staff that she was a “no” as she contemplates her next steps – which could mean a presidential run in 2020.
The trio of rejections gets at an issue for Democrats hellbent on taking back the Senate in 2020: Much of the party’s top talent is either eyeing the nation’s top executive office or uninterested in joining a legislative body that has become known for gridlock rather than actual accomplishments.
Control of the Senate is essential for Democrats whether they win back the White House or not. Senate control during a second Trump term would mean the ability to block judicial nominations and make the President’s life difficult on all legislative matters, while control under a Democratic president would pave the way for rolling back much of Trump’s actions in his first term and passing some of the more sweeping legislation on climate change, health care and the economy that Democratic presidential hopefuls have been promising on the campaign trail.
Republicans are defending 22 Senate seats in 2020. Comparably, Democrats are defending 12 seats this election cycle – nine of which are in states that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
Republicans currently hold 53 seats in the Senate, while Democrats hold 45 plus two independents who caucus with the party. That means Democrats will need to pick up three or four Senate seats in 2020 for control, depending on what happens with Donald Trump’s re-election. The vice president serves as a tie-breaking vote, so even if Democrats win three seats, they would need to also win the presidency; otherwise, the likes of Vice President Mike Pence would likely shut down their legislative efforts.
Democrats note that plenty of party leaders in key states are eyeing Senate runs in 2020, including astronaut and gun control advocate Mark Kelly in Arizona, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan in New Mexico, veteran and former House candidate MJ Hegar in Texas and state Sen. Mike Johnston in Colorado. Further, an operative at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee told CNN that it never expected Bullock or Hickenlooper to run in their states’ races.
Still, Democrats’ Senate prospects have become more complicated in recent months, with Bullock, Hickenlooper and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke jumping into the presidential race – and Abrams and other recruited Democrats, like former Gov. Tom Vilsack and Rep. Cindy Axne in Iowa and North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, declining to run.
Some silver linings exist for Democrats
Republicans are playing defense in some politically difficult states. Sen. Cory Gardner is defending his seat in Colorado, a state that Trump lost by 5 percentage points in 2016. And Sen. Susan Collins, after angering Democrats by bucking her moderate persona by backing a series of Trump priorities, is defending her seat in Maine, a state Trump lost by nearly 3 percentage points in 2016.
Republicans are also defending seats in Arizona and Iowa. While Trump won both in 2016, the states elected a series of Democrats in 2018. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema defeated Martha McSally in Arizona; now McSally, appointed to the seat once held by John McCain, is running again.
While Iowa went from having three of their four members of the House being Republicans to only one after the 2018 midterms, part of the Democratic wave that helped the House flip. And Republicans were delivered a blow this month when Chris Sununu, the governor of New Hampshire, declined to challenge Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
But Republicans remain invigorated by some of Democrats’ recruitment issues.
“Prominent Democrats are immune to Chuck Schumer’s supposed ‘power of persuasion’ when faced with a race against a battle-tested Republican incumbent,” said Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “His band of third-tier candidates will be left to defend their party’s trend toward socialism to mainstream voters.”
Democrats – expectedly – have a different view.
“As Republicans struggle to defend their weak incumbents whose toxic records include voting to raise health care costs and hike taxes on Gold Star families, impressive Democrats with compelling stories are stepping up to run for Senate - and we’ll have strong candidates in each of these key battlegrounds,” said Stewart Boss, spokesman for the Democratic committee.
Aversion to the Senate
Hickenlooper makes it very clear to anyone who asks about why he isn’t running for the Senate that the prospect doesn’t sound appealing to him.
“It would be hard for me – and I am not saying I couldn’t do it and I am not saying my patriotic duty may compel me to do it – but my character, what activates me, motivates me is building teams and surrounding myself with really talented people, taking big bites out of major challenges and then doing them,” Hickenlooper told CNN shortly before he announced a 2020 run.
Asked if he believes tackling those challenges would be harder in the Senate, Hickenlooper doesn’t hesitate.
“That’s my point. You are one of 100,” he said. “And my natural inclination is to go somewhere where I can create that team.”
Bullock told a similar story.
“Part of it is the role of an executive, that is what I have always done. That is where I think I could actually add more,” Bullock said. “You see a lot of frustration (in Congress), as a governor I have been frustrated with the inaction of Congress. … I think I can be more effective here.”
Former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid recently acknowledged the complications surrounding the body he once led.
“I think that there’s a feeling that the Senate is not-is not dignified like it used to be,” he told the New York Times in an interview that published this month. “It’s a shame that Beto O’Rourke – he came to see me at my home. I just lament he’s not running for the Senate.”
The Times reported that Reid said it was also a “shame” that Bullock wasn’t running for Senate.
Still, both Hickenlooper and Bullock have fielded repeated attempts by a variety of Democrats to consider running for Senate. And there is still some hope that, should their presidential hopes flame out early, they could decide to run for the Senate.
“God bless him,” Schumer said when asked about Bullock’s presidential bid shortly after the Montana governor announced.
It is still early in the process, Democrats working on retaking the Senate note, saying both Hickenlooper and Bullock informed them early in the process that they were uninterested in running for Senate.
“And it would have been malpractice if the DSCC or Democrats broadly didn’t ask the Betos, the Bullocks, the Hickenloopers of the world, hey, will you consider a Senate run,” a DSCC official said.
“If people don’t want to be in the Senate, there are other people who do.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly state that Democrats are defending nine Senate seats in states Hillary Clinton won in 2016.