Senate

Democrats hope some presidential candidates drop out — and run for Senate 

Democrats facing a steep uphill climb to win back the Senate want Beto O’Rourke to reconsider his long-shot bid for president and take another look at running for the Senate in Texas, especially if his White House bid fails to pick up momentum.

They feel the same way about two other White House hopefuls who are polling at around 1 percent or lower: former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

Political experts give O’Rourke, Bullock and Hickenlooper little chance of winning the White House but say they could give GOP incumbents in their states a run for the money.

{mosads}If they don’t run, Democrats will have a slimmer chance of winning in the states and taking back the Senate majority in either 2020 or 2022. And that would hamper a Democratic president — if the party can defeat President Trump.

Democratic senators won’t call out the low-polling presidential candidates by name in public, but they’re not shy about making the argument that some would do more for their party in Senate races than in the crowded presidential fight.

“The clock is running out for people who have not demonstrated any ability to mount a serious presidential bid to help make a real difference in their country by helping to turn the Senate,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), articulating a sentiment that other Senate Democrats expressed privately.  

“It would be a shame if we elected a new president who faced the same enmity and obstruction in the Senate that Obama had to live through, all because a lot of candidates who had no shot wouldn’t run for winnable Senate seats,” he added.

O’Rourke, a former three-term House member, raised nearly $79 million for his 2018 Senate race and came within 3 points of defeating Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

He is hovering around 4 percent in recent Democratic primary polls — down from when he entered the race.

A new Quinnipiac University poll showed that Democrats and people who lean Democratic in Texas say by more than a two-to-one margin that O’Rourke should challenge Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) instead of run for president.

The poll also showed former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of Trump by 4 points in Texas, suggesting a strong Senate candidate could benefit.

Jeff Hewitt, a Democratic strategist who has done extensive work in Texas, said O’Rourke would have a major advantage over any other candidate because he has high name ID in Texas’s 30 media markets as a result of spending nearly $80 million in his 2018 race.

“The fundraising ability, the idea of turning a Texas Senate seat blue, those are all the things that fueled his Senate campaign, which nobody cares about when he’s running for president,” he said. “The smartest political play for O’Rourke would be to go back to Texas and run for Senate.”

“He’d have the best chance to pull it off,” Hewitt said of beating Cornyn.

Chris Evans, a spokesman for O’Rourke, said “Beto is grateful for the opportunity he had to run an historic and transformational Senate campaign in 2018 that visited all 254 counties of the state while winning more votes than any Democrat in Texas history.”

He said O’Rourke is “committed to bringing forward that same drive and ability to not just defeat Donald Trump in November of 2020 but to unite people together so we can overcome the greatest set of challenges this country has ever faced.”

Bullock and Hickenlooper are facing similar scrutiny.

Bullock, a two-term governor, was rated Montana’s most popular politician with a 60 percent approval rating in a Montana State University–Montana Television Network poll published in January.

Hickenlooper, a former two-term governor of Colorado, left office this year with an approval rating of 49 percent — versus a disapproval rating of 30 — and would be a daunting matchup for vulnerable Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).

Stacey Abrams, who came within 2 points of winning Georgia’s governor’s race last year, is another candidate Senate Democrats see as a solid recruit to take out a GOP incumbent, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). Abrams has flirted with running for president, but it now looks she may be preparing for a gubernatorial rematch in 2022.

Like Whitehouse, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said he also hopes that Democrats with long-shot presidential bids think more seriously about the Senate. But he warned they would have to be fully committed to win.

“We have a number of presidential aspirants who would make excellent senatorial candidates, but they first have to be committed to the race. I hope they’ll reach the point where it makes sense to them,” he said.

Durbin said “of course” there’s frustration among some of his colleagues that promising candidates have decided to run for president instead of the Senate. But he suggested the field could narrow as some realize they have little chance of winning the presidency.

“The system has a way of narrowing the field,” he said.  

Even if high-profile candidates don’t win in Republican-leaning states, they would force Senate Republicans and their allied PACs to divert more money to defending vulnerable incumbents.

A third Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to comment on internal caucus discussions, said, “There’s frustration among people who care about the majority.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D), who narrowly survived a bruising reelection race in Republican-leaning Montana last year, said he hears from Democratic colleagues who want Bullock to change his mind and run for Senate.

“But the truth is this is Steve’s call and he’s chosen to run for president. He’d make a great president. I think it’s a hard battle for him to win, but it’s a hard battle for Booker and Bennet and all these other guys I like, too. It’s the way it is,” Tester said, referring to Senate colleagues Cory Booker (N.J.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.), two presidential candidates also polling in the low single digits.

A Democratic strategist in Washington who works on Senate races acknowledged that O’Rourke and Abrams would be strong Senate candidates but argued that their high name ID is a result of the work they put into the 2018 campaign cycle and that other candidates can do the same.

“Texas and Georgia are fundamentally competitive, regardless of who the Democratic candidate is. It takes time to build up your name ID. It took Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams two years to do that,” said the strategist.

A poll commissioned by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee published in late April showed on a generic ballot test voters in Georgia are more likely by 2 percentage points to favor an unnamed Democratic candidate for Senate over an unnamed Republican one.  

Democrats need to capture four Republican-held seats, or three GOP seats and the White House, regain the Senate majority.

If Sen. Doug Jones (D) loses in Alabama, a solid red state that President Trump won with 62 percent in 2016, the bar gets even higher.

Political handicappers say Republicans are favored to keep control of the Senate, even though they have to defend 24 seats while Democrats only have to protect 12.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, rates Democrats chances of taking back the Senate in 2020 as “not that good.”

“We’ve got 51 seats classified as Republican to one degree or another. There are some toss ups. Democrats are at 46 instead of 47, which they have now, so they’d have to sweep the toss-ups that we’ve got and then manage to convert at least one Republican seat — two if a Republican is reelected to the White House,” he said.

He rates the toss-up states as Arizona, Colorado and Alabama. He views Maine, Iowa and North Carolina as leaning Republican and Montana and Texas as likely Republican.

Senate Republicans currently hold a 53-47 majority.

The problem for Democrats is that only two Senate Republicans are up for reelection in states 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won — Gardner in Colorado and Sen. Susan Collins in Maine — and Collins, a fourth-term moderate, will be tough to beat.

Gardner and Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) are the Democrats’ two most promising targets, but Gardner, who beat incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) in 2014, has proven himself to be a canny campaigner.

Democrats, however, could increase their chances of relegating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to the minority by expanding their list of targets to include Cornyn and Sen. Steve Daines (R) in Texas and Montana, respectively.

Tags Cory Booker Cory Gardner Dick Durbin Donald Trump doug jones Hillary Clinton Joe Biden John Cornyn John Hickenlooper Jon Tester Mark Udall Martha McSally Michael Bennet Mitch McConnell Senate Sheldon Whitehouse Steve Bullock Steve Daines Susan Collins Ted Cruz
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