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Why ambitious Democrats are saying ‘no thanks’ to Senate runs

Stacey Abrams is not the first to reject party wooing, and may not be the last

Former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke decided to run for president instead of challenging GOP Sen. John Cornyn. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke decided to run for president instead of challenging GOP Sen. John Cornyn. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

With Stacey Abrams becoming the latest high-profile Democrat to say no to a 2020 Senate bid — and more rejections of party pressure possible on the horizon — running for the Senate no longer looks look like the step up the political ladder it may once have been.

A few Democrats have chosen to run for president this year instead of challenging Republican senators. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke passed on a race against Sen. John Cornyn. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper isn’t taking on incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is expected to join the presidential field soon, passing on a bid against Sen. Steve Daines.

[Watch 2020 presidential candidate profiles here]

Other Democrats have opted to run for House, where Democrats made historic gains in 2018. Freshman Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne is running for re-election to her 3rd District seat rather than taking on GOP Sen. Joni Ernst. Former Colorado state House Speaker Crisanta Duran is waging a primary challenge to a sitting Democratic congresswoman instead of trying to unseat Gardner. Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro is still deciding about running for Senate, as is Air Force veteran Amy McGrath, whose House bid in Kentucky last year included video spots that went viral and attracted support from around the country.

National Republicans are quick to pan the recent announcements as “recruitment failures” on Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s part — the same kind of criticism that Democrats hurled at the Senate GOP for much of the 2018 cycle, which culminated with Republicans maintaining control of the chamber.

Of course, Democrats already have candidates in some of these races, and it’s still early. Candidates in competitive Senate races tend to launch their campaigns 12 to 16 months out from Election Day, which is currently 19 months away.

And so far Democrats aren’t worried— at least not publicly.

Lesser-known Democratic women in Iowa, Georgia, North Carolina and Maine are considering running for Senate, and may not have as much baggage as the bigger names.

“That’s not quite as sexy right now,” said one Democratic operative involved in Senate races.

“But I am confident that in each of these states where incumbents are in real trouble, we have solid, prepared names who will emerge who are not household names now,” she said.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has attacked the remaining candidates in many of these states as “second tier,” another familiar refrain that Democrats used against GOP Senate candidates last cycle.

Abrams hasn’t revealed what’s in her future, except that it won’t be in the Senate — an institution she praised in her not-running-for-Senate announcement video Tuesday.

“The Senate provides a singular platform from which to address the issues of access to justice, economic security, health care and restoring the integrity of our nation’s democracy,” Abrams said, before saying she wasn’t interested in the job.

So why are Abrams and all these others saying “no thanks” to the Senate? It depends on the candidate.

1. One of 100

Making the transition from being a governor to be a senator is notoriously challenging. Even West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, who was twice elected governor and whose party just spent millions of dollars getting him re-elected to the Senate, is eyeing a return to his state’s executive mansion.

The idea of going from being a chief executive to one of 100 senators may be one reason Hickenlooper and Bullock aren’t keen on the Senate. The same goes for Abrams, who narrowly lost a gubernatorial bid last fall and is said to be considering a 2022 rerun against Gov. Brian Kemp — if she doesn’t run for president.

Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine said he had a “hard time” picturing how he would fit into the Senate as a former mayor and governor, but he found the chamber allowed him to play a role in national security and foreign policy.

“If you realize there’s opportunities here that you would never have as governor, there’s plenty of important work to do,” he said.

2. The Senate is an acquired taste

The institution itself may not be as functional as it used to be, one Democratic strategist said.

“One person, especially one person in the minority, doesn’t have as much power as they used to,” he said.

“The caliber of senators, the partisanship of senators, the pettiness of the Senate — they say that it’s become like the House, and that’s like the ultimate insult,” he added.

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, a former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, acknowledged that the perception of Washington gridlock could scare off potential Senate candidates.

“It doesn’t have the best reputation in the world,” Tester said of the chamber. “There’s a dialogue about not getting a lot done so you can’t make a lot of changes. A lot of it isn’t true, by the way.”

3. They want to be something else

For some candidates taking a pass on the Senate, there’s another job they’re after. For Abrams, it may be governor. For O’Rourke, it may be president.

Even long-shot presidential contenders may have their eyes on other jobs that they think are more alluring than the Senate. Maybe they want to be a presidential running mate or a member of the Cabinet in a future Democratic administration. Or maybe their calling is to be cable TV pundit.

Running for president is arduous and expensive. But it’s one way to raise a national profile without having to commit to six years shuffling between home states and Washington, D.C.

4. Those Senate races weren’t going to be easy

For someone like Abrams, who could have a long political career in front of her, running for Senate in a red state could have been risky, especially after her recent statewide loss.

“It’s very tough to come back from two loses,” the Democratic strategist said. President Donald Trump carried Georgia by 4 points in 2016, and taking on GOP Sen. David Perdue would have been no easy feat for Abrams. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Leans Republican.

Soon after her gubernatorial loss, Abrams founded a voting rights organization and national Democrats picked her to deliver the Democratic response to the State of the Union. So it’s not as if she needs a platform to remain relevant.

“She can stay part of the conversation without having to run,” the Democratic strategist said.

Bullock would also have faced a tough race in Montana. Although he’s already shown he can win statewide, defeating Greg Gianforte in 2016 for a second gubernatorial term may have proved to be easier than taking on Daines in 2020.

Daines is regarded as a stronger Republican candidate than Gianforte was in 2016 or state auditor Matt Rosendale in the 2018 Senate race. Inside Elections rates the Montana Senate race Solid Republican.

5. They can always change their minds!

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio did just that in 2016. After flaming out of the GOP presidential contest, he announced that June he’d be running for re-election to his Senate seat, something he’d said he wouldn’t do as a presidential candidate.

Any number of the Democrats who have passed on Senate bids this year could still change their minds. Democratic operatives most often put Hickenlooper in that category, although he said last month that he’s “not cut out” to be a senator. He’d bring statewide name recognition to a race against Gardner, who’s running for a second term in a state Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. Inside Elections rate the Colorado Senate race a Toss-up.

It may depend how these candidates fare in the presidential race — and what their other options are. In 2012, for example, not many people expected Mitt Romney would someday be a first-term senator who started with a basement office.

“When you’re faced with the choice of either political irrelevance or being a senator, all the sudden being a senator looks pretty good,” the Democratic strategist said.

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